I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life [Book Review]

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Microbes show collaboration at its finest.

That’s the main thesis of this book. Ed Yong presents various researches showing that despite their tiny size and imperfect bodies, the microbes manage to exist for millions of years through their ability to adapt and collaborate with each other (unlike some other bigger living organisms!).

This book contains a lot of fascinating information about microbes and how they sculpt every other living organisms in this world. He presents various researches about how mother milk and vaginal delivery expose infants to the microbes that will shape the ecosystem of infant’s guts; how our current obsession with antiseptic products may trigger various allergies and inflammatory diseases; how tiny little microbes influence other organism’s behavior; etc.

Ed Yong is a marvelous storyteller. I love the way he describes science through anecdotes and metaphors. For instance, he describes our body as a garden, where different microbes occupy different “lands” depend on the nutrition on those lands. He also compares the “horizontal gene transfer” in bacterias with “a situation where people exchange personal information or ideas”.

While I used to work with a lot of microbes (or microbe-related materials) during my former research, I manage to respect microbe more by reading this book. Here are some parts of this book that I think interesting:

  • Germ-free mice are odd creatures with many physiological changes that could have impinged on their behavior, i.e. anxiety. But, after the mice ingested a bacteria strain, JB-1 of L. rhamnosus, they start to overcome the anxiety (page 73). This research is one of the fundamental argument about the correlation between autism and gut microbes. Read this review article to find more perspective on this matter.
  • Milk is one of the most astounding ways in which mammals control their microbes (page 92). Mother’s milk contains antibodies that control the microbial populations of adults, and babies get those “right” antibodies during breastfeeding. Here is the latest research on this topic. I wonder, if we give our kids cow’s milk when they were the infant, they will grow to contain cow’s microbes? 😦
  • Lean and obese individuals (people or mice) possess different gut microbes. If obese individual’s microbes are transplanted to the leaner individuals, the leaner one will gain up to 47% more fat (obesity can be transplanted!). Can then leaner individual’s microbes reverse obesity? Here is the research on this issue.
  • The citrus mealybug is a living matryoshka doll. It has bacteria living inside its cell (called Trembalaya), and those bacteria have more bacteria (called Moranella) living inside them (page 201).  Mealybug, Trembalayaor Moranella, can’t make phenylalanine (an important amino acid) by themselves alone. Each organism own different genes that when combined, can synthesize phenylalanine for themselves. Here is an example that microbes show collaboration at its finest.

There arere still more interesting information in this book. However, I wonder why Yong doesn’t review the current topic about how bacteria reform gene editing field, which will give a substantial impact on our healthcare system in the future. Nevertheless, I think this is a really good book that could blow our mind about how depending we’re on the microbes.


p.s.: Ed Yong is also such a great presenter! Watch the summary of his book in his presentation below.



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