STARRED REVIEW
August 09, 2016

The multitudes inside us

By Ed Young
Although it might seem rather creepy, we are all teaming with microscopic organisms, collectively known as our microbiome. These organisms live on our skin, inside our bodies and sometimes inside our cells. They are way too tiny to see with the naked eye, but if our own cells were to mysteriously disappear, they would perhaps show up as a shimmering microbial flicker, outlining our vanished body.
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Although it might seem rather creepy, we are all teaming with microscopic organisms, collectively known as our microbiome. These organisms live on our skin, inside our bodies and sometimes inside our cells. They are way too tiny to see with the naked eye, but if our own cells were to mysteriously disappear, they would perhaps show up as a shimmering microbial flicker, outlining our vanished body.

These microbes should not be considered harmful. Microbes help unite us with our fellow creatures, connecting us to each other and the world, also known as symbiosis. In I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life, award-winning science writer Ed Yong (The Atlantic, National Geographic) takes a fascinating topic and illuminates it with attention-getting facts, descriptions and explanations. Spanning a period of two billion years, he goes from explaining how microbes helped create Earth’s first complex organisms and the ways their microbiomes have been exchanged ever since, to describing why formerly balanced environments such as coral reefs are now in danger, a disharmony referred to as dysbiosis.

Yong provides enlightening clarifications about the power wielded by these miniscule beings. Microbes are still viewed as unwanted, filthy germs by many people. But most are not harbingers of illness. The thousands of microbial species colonizing our guts are typically harmless, important components of our existence, helping us digest food, produce vitamins and break down toxins.

Scientists are discovering more and more about microbes every day. It’s a rapidly changing, uncertain and controversial field, one that includes concepts such as probiotics; a new surgical procedure known as fecal microbiota transplant (FMT), in which microbes are transplanted via donor stools; and the prospect of a terrifying post-antibiotic era due to overuse, which disrupts our microbiome and encourages the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

A must-read for the curious and science-minded, Yong’s book helps guide us through this exciting landscape.

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