I contain multitudes
Wendy Moore reviews Ed Yong’s book about microbes
Microbes, most of them bacteria, have populated this planet since long before animal life developed and they will outlive us. Invisible to the naked eye, they are ubiquitous. They inhabit the soil, air, rocks and water and are present within every form of life, from seaweed and coral to dogs and humans. And, as Yong explains in his utterly absorbing and hugely important book we mess with them at our peril.
Every species has its own colony of microbes, called a ‘microbiome’, and these microbes vary not only between species but also between individuals and within different parts of each individual. What is amazing is that while the number of human cells in the average person is about 30 trillion, the number of microbial ones is higher – about 39 trillion. At best, Yong informs us, we are only 50 per cent human. Indeed, some scientists even suggest we should think of each species and its microbes as a single unit, dubbed a ‘holobiont’.
In each human there are microbes that live only in the stomach, the mouth or the armpit and by and large they do so peacefully. So ‘bad’ microbes are just microbes out of context. Microbes that sit contentedly in the human gut (where there are more microbes than there are stars in the galaxy) can become deadly if they find their way into the bloodstream. These communities are constantly changing too. The right hand shares just one sixth of its microbes with the left hand. And, of course, we are surrounded by microbes. Every time we eat, we swallow a million microbes in each gram of food; we are continually swapping microbes with other humans, pets and the world at large.
It’s a fascinating topic and Yong, a young British science journalist, is an extraordinarily adept guide. Writing with lightness and panache, he has a knack of explaining complex science in terms that are both easy to understand and totally enthralling. Yong is on a mission. Leading us gently by the hand, he takes us into the world of microbes – a bizarre, alien planet – in a bid to persuade us to love them as much as he does. By the end, we do.