I Contain Multitudes is a wonderful, beautifully written book that transforms what could be a dull, tedious scientific read into a masterful, delightful adventure introducing microbes’ role in health, evolution, ecology, and culture. Utterly fascinating, clever and filled with engaging stories, this book is a winner. And Ed Yong is an exceptionally talented storyteller.
The stories are so real, so relevant, so wondrous, I found myself reacting physically as I was reading with a smile, a cringe, a gasp.
As the title implies, we are never alone. Yong writes:
“Even when we are alone, we are never alone. We exist in symbiosis — a wonderful term that refers to different organisms living together. The microbiome is infinitely more versatile than any of our familiar body parts. Your cells carry between 20,000 and 25,000 genes, but it is estimated that the microbes inside you wield around 500 times more. This genetic wealth, combined with their rapid evolution, makes them virtuosos of biochemistry, able to adapt to any possible challenge. They help to digest our food, releasing otherwise inaccessible nutrients. They produce vitamins and minerals that are missing from our diet. They break down toxins and hazardous chemicals. They protect us from disease by crowding out more dangerous microbes or killing them directly with antimicrobial chemicals. They produce substances that affect the way we smell. They are such an inevitable presence that we have outsourced surprising aspects of our lives to them. They guide the construction of our bodies, releasing molecules and signals that steer the growth of our organs. They educate our immune system, teaching it to tell friend from foe. They affect the development of the nervous system, and perhaps even influence our behavior. They contribute to our lives in profound and wide-ranging ways; no corner of our biology is untouched. If we ignore them, we are looking at our lives through a keyhole.”
A fascinating role of our microbiome is the potential influence on our mental health. Although studies are limited and in their infancy, there are early indications that our microbiome may play an important role in helping people manage mild stress and depression. Yong goes one step further to posit that if microbiomes can shape our mood, perhaps they can also shape our choices and, thus our destiny.
According to Yong,
“Studies are already forcing scientists to view different aspects of human behavior through a microbial lens. Drinking lots of alcohol makes the gut leakier, allowing microbes to more readily influence the brain — could that help to explain why alcoholics often experience depression or anxiety? Our diet reshapes the microbes in our gut — could those changes ripple out to affect our minds? The gut microbiome becomes less stable in old age — could that contribute to the rise of brain diseases in the elderly? And could our microbes manipulate our food cravings in the first place?”
There’s so much to glean from this captivating adventure into our microbiome. You’ll gain insight into the good, the bad, and the truly ugly—and enjoy every moment of the journey!
For a sneak peak, watch Yong’s speech, “The Microbes within Us” given the day I Contain Multitudes was released.