Review published on March 16, 2017.
You may think that we are just made from muscles, blood cells, bones and a fair bit of DNA, but in between the gaps are microbes. Billions and billions of them. There are the odd rogue ones, but most of them are useful and make up an essential element of our being. Without them we could not live. They help us in countless ways, sculpting our organs, protecting us from disease and feeding and nourishing us; our gut contains a complete ecosystem that ensure that we extract all the energy we need.
Microbes work equal miracles in other animals too, providing the ethereal light that disguises a squid as they hunt, ensuring that koalas are able to digest the unpalatable eucalyptus leaves and the weevil that uses bacteria to make its shell before killing them. The modern worldview of eliminating all microbes is causing as much harm as it is good; people nowdays have a revulsion of all things bacterial, hence the raft of cleaning products that are designed to scour all surfaces and hands clean of these unwanted intruders. However, as Yong successfully argues in this book that not only we might be missing a trick, but our bacterial ecosystem is essential for our survival. A good example of this is in hospitals; the modern view is that all windows have to be locked shut to keep rogue microbes out, but the effect of this is that patients sit in their beds stewing in a lethal mix of micro-organisms. This hazardous situation can be simply solved by opening a window, this allows the dispersal and dilution of the potentially lethal ones. Simple, but very effective.
It is a fascinating account of the unseen creatures that live within and all around us. Yong takes us on this journey through the microscope to discover the most recent research from scientists all round the world and tell us of the secrets that are being discovered about microbes. Some of the treatments being developed have the potential to make people’s so lives much better; one example is RePOOpulate – as unappealing as it sounds! However, this treatment has worked miracles with a 94% success rate and no side effects, a success rate not seen in many other cures. Yong writes with an engaging and eloquent style and makes the science in here really accessible. Well worth reading.
Paul Cheney 4.5*
I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong, published on 1 September, 2016 by Bodley Head in hardback
Shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize 2017
Wellcome Book Prize 2017 shortlist: The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee