One of my book aims for 2018 is to read a larger number of non-fiction books and Ed Yong’s book is a good start in that direction. I first heard about the book listening to the ‘Start the Week’ BBC podcast and the talk intrigued me and made me want to read the book. Many months later, I finally landed up getting a copy from the Old Library in Dubai.
Essentially the book is about microbes. Beings that we cannot see with our naked eye but who are present everywhere. The title of the book, taken from a poem by Walt Whitman, is used to underline just how many microbes we carry with us not only on the surface of our skin, our hair etc., but also within our body. For every human being there are literally millions of microbes that exist with and within us. It is a misconception that “We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone” (Orson Welles)- everywhere we go, everything we do, our microbes are with us.
This book blew me away on a multitude of levels. First, I think we all know today that not all bugs/ germs/ microbes are bad. We know that there are good bacteria living in our digestive system but not much else. For example we may not know how intrinsically important bacteria are in building our immune system when we are babies. Apparently human breast milk from a mother has a majority of compounds that a baby’s digestive system cannot digest directly. BUT, these compounds nourish a particular kind of bacteria that in turn releases compounds that the baby’s system can absorb. This bacteria also helpfully instructs the babies intestines and cells on how to better strengthen their cell lining and amplify their defense system. So let’s get this straight- our immune system needs to learn the ropes from bacteria. Then where goes the concept of us vs them? We’ve always prided on our immune system as a mechanism that repels anything that’s not us. Turns out that is not true at all. Ed Yong describes the immune system as a thermostat that can be set at different levels of protectiveness and bacteria to a large extent can instruct these settings. This has vast repercussions not just biologically but also in our psychological thinking and our concept of individuality (thereby going back to the ‘I contain multitudes’ thinking).
Two other concepts that I learnt about in the book which were just amazing. The first is the story of mitochondria. Single celled organisms have existed on this planet for much much longer than any multi-cellular organism. There were two streams of single celled life- the bacteria and the archaea but at some point a bacteria merged with an archaeon and was completely entrapped in it- losing its self existence. This bacteria became mitochondria and this internal store of energy was what helped cells grow larger leading to the evolution of multi-cellular organisms. So the mitochondria that we all carry – many many many millions of years ago was a bacteria.
The other concept was ‘Horizontal Gene Transfer’ or HGT where bacteria are able to swap genes amongst themselves within a single lifetime. Think about it- if you had a useful gene, I could just take that gene from you. Normally genes are passed down vertically from parent to child. But bacteria are somehow able to transfer genes horizontally which means that they are able to adapt very swiftly to changing environments (and this is why bacteria become resistant to antibiotics because they are able to take in resistant genes from other bacteria).
Ed Yong’s book is crammed with information from cover to cover. At some point you have to stop paying too much attention to names of bacteria and just focus on catching the general concept. Critics of the book have also said the book is overly repetitive. It is true in some ways but it just comes across as Yong’s enthusiasm to tell us how fascinating the microbial world really is. I didn’t particularly mind the repetition. In fact, I feel I won’t forget some of the things just because of how frequently they were brought up in the book.
All in all a great book if you are interested in the world around you.
So what is the first book you are reading this year?