A book which explores the wide, weird world of microbiomes and takes its title from Walt Whitman’s poem Song of Myself is a rare treat, and Ed Yong’s resoundingly well-received New York Times best-seller I Contain Multitudes is exactly that. In it, Yong explores the microbial universes within and around us.
I’ve been reading his work for years, previously online at National Geographic and Discover, and now in The Atlantic. In fact, I regularly assign his writing in workshops and courses. He is not only one of the best modern, informal science writers but he also successfully made the leap from lab bench to press box – a leap which many of my graduate student scientists regard with envy and excitement. So last week, I stopped by the marvelously collegiate Seminary CoOp for the Chicago-leg of his US book tour.
In both the talk and the book, Yong doesn’t solely focus on a single bacterium or a buzzworthy health angle (fecal transplants! Zika treatments!). Instead, he explores the complex ecosystems within many living things, highlighting a range of unexpected partnerships between microbes and hosts – including coral, wildebeests, human infants, and sterile rats. Yong traverses epochs of time, and from ocean depths to the moon and back, always with the tiniest of organisms in focus.
Throughout, Yong’s deft and vivid turns of phrase abound. When bobtail squids obscure themselves from predators with the help of bioluminescent microbes, they wear microbial ‘invisibility cloaks’. When deep sea vents spew nutrient-rich concoctions into the oceans, they ‘belch hot fluid’.
When explaining the depth and complexity of microbial systems in our own gut, he evokes the more familiar ecosystem of the jungle to highlight the balance of organisms of all types which constitute healthy biodiversity.
Perhaps his best likeness, though, is deployed to challenge our understanding of microbial invasions. So often bacteria are considered bad and our immune systems are touted as the frontline defense. Bacteria, in these militaristic metaphors, are harmful, infectious enemies which need to be eradicated by any available combination of immune response, pesticides, and antibiotics.
Yong argues for a more nuanced approach. One which takes into account the lifesaving and regulatory functions of some microbes without dismissing the very real and very dismal dangers of others. A view of microbes which encapsulates their throngs while appreciating the context-specific details of defining friend and foe. He argues, we should think of our immune systems --when working well --as judicious park rangers: managing populations, working with and for appropriate residents, and keeping invasive species in check.
In my earliest scientific dalliances, I never imaged microbiology at the forefront of exciting science. Bacteria seemed so simple. So predictable. So boring. But there are whole worlds left to discover in our multitudes and their precarious, precise balance. As Yong says, “our exploration of the microbial world is only beginning”.