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I Contain Multitudes By Ed Yong

Cherish your microbes.


When you hear the words microbe and bacteria, whats your first thought?
Maybe something like, Those lousy little beasts that, every year, steal days of
your life by attacking your health and forcing you to stay in bed and drink
chamomile tea yuck!

But did you know that microbes such as bacteria are the only reason our
immune system can function in the first place? Indeed, microbes are vital to all
of our bodily functions and the human body contains more of them than
actual body cells.

In these blinks, youll learn to welcome your microbes and appreciate them as
your bodys little helpers. Youll discover the exceptional role that microbes have
played in evolution and why to hang out with microbes is to be in good company
not only for us, but for all organisms.

Youll also learn

how many microbes fit on the head of a pin;


that microbes make a fish invisible; and
why some of the leaves on apple trees dont turn yellow in
fall.

Microbes are everywhere, helping our


planet function.
Microbes have been around for so long that its hard to comprehend, so lets
look at it another way: If the Earths 4.5 billion years of existence were one
calendar year, humans would have shown up in the last 30 minutes of
December 31st, five days after the extinction of the dinosaurs. Microbes, on the
other hand, have been around since March.

Thats a long time ago, and for a while they were the only living things around.
But even then they were hard at work, shaping the planet we see before us.
The term microbes actually refers to a wide array of tiny single-cell organisms,
such as various species of bacteria and fungi.

Just how tiny are they? Well, microbes are so small that a million of them could
fit on the head of a pin.

But this doesnt mean their role is insignificant. Microbes are always busy
breaking down various molecules all around us, which is how soil gets enriched
and nutrients such as carbon and nitrogen complete their environmental cycles.

Microbes also played a vital role in creating Earths atmosphere. Microbes were
the first living things to use photosynthesis, a process whereby an organism uses
energy from sunlight to convert carbon dioxide and water into sugar. The
microbes then ate this sugar, releasing oxygen as they did so and creating our
atmosphere in the process

This also set the foundations for the carbon cycle without which life
couldnt exist the absorption of carbon dioxide by plants, the consumption of
plants by animals, the exhalation of carbon dioxide by animals.
Another reason microbes are so amazing is their ability to adapt to just about
any environment. Youll find them in the ice of Antarctica, up among the clouds
or down at the edge of an underwater volcano, where the temperature reaches
400 C.

Microbes can adapt to these extreme environments because they evolve at an


extremely rapid pace.

By forming a physical link from one cell to another, pieces of DNA can be sent
and added to a genome. Therefore, microbes can share an adaptation from their
neighbor and pass these new genes along during reproduction, making
evolution much faster than the process of natural selection.

Apart from our own genes, every


human has many microbial genes,
which influence our life and
development.
If youre a fan of scientific journals, you may have read that for every one human
cell there are ten microbial cells in our body. While this is an exaggeration, the
truth is still impressive.

Microbes do in fact make up the majority of the cells and genes in our body.

We have around 69 trillion cells in our body, and over half of them, around 39
trillion, are microbial. There are also around 20,000 genes in the human
genome, but if we were to include all the microbial genes we carry, the number
would become 500 times bigger.

Every individual, no matter what species its from, has unique and complex
microbial communities called microbiome. Each part of the body has a
different community, and though everyones microbes are different, these
communities are there to perform the same set of functions.
A microbiome is like any other natural ecosystem: Each community has a
certain microbe that acts like a dominant leader to make sure things function
properly, such as balancing the levels of acidity in its particular part of the body.

In this way, the health and development of all animals and humans depend on
microbes.

This is especially true for our immune system. Breast milk is rich in over 200
nutrients, including human milk oligosaccharides, or HMOs. Yet babies cant
digest HMOs; theyre only there to feed a special microbe in our gut called B.
infantis.
When this microbe digests HMOs, it releases nutrients in the form of proteins,
which babies can digest. These include anti-inflammatory proteins that coat
the gut and calibrate our immune system.
The gut microbes of humans and animals serve many functions. For instance, in
mice, theres a family of gut microbes called Bacteroides
thetaiotaomicron. These activate certain genes during development to
ensure that they form the right blood vessels and that their gut will have the
right microbes to break down toxins and build nutrients.

Symbiosis with microbes gives some


animals remarkable powers.
In many parts of the Northern Hemisphere, when autumn arrives, a trees
leaves will turn to beautiful shades of yellow, orange and red. However, if you
look closely, youll see that some leaves remain green.

Believe it or not, this is due to one of many remarkable relationships between


microbes and animals.

In this case, its a partnership between the tentiform leafminer moth


and Wolbachia, the world's most common microbe. Since the leafminer
matures by forming a cocoon on a trees leaf, it has a microbe that will produce a
hormone to make sure the leaf stays green and doesnt fall down prematurely,
killing the grub.
Another fascinating relationship involves a little cephalopod called the bobtail
squid and a highly complex system of microbes that creates a light-emitting
organ to keep it safe at night. The microbial cocktail works by making the
squids outer layer of cells hospitable to only one particular microbe. And when
these microbes arrive, theyre supplied with nutrients and made to become one
with the squid.

Remarkably, these microbes then act as the squids defense system, producing a
glow that matches the skys moonlight and effectively hides it from any hunters
lurking below. With no silhouette or discernable shadow, the bobtail squid is
virtually invisible to predators.

These are extraordinary examples, but helpful microbes arent unusual in fact,
they are the rule, not the exception.

Since microbes can live just about anywhere, and can also help animals digest
otherwise indigestible food, theyre the animal kingdoms universal helpers.
Even ten to 20 percent of all insects depend on microbes to provide vitamins
and help them build cells and proteins. For instance, half of a termites body
weight is helper microbes devoted to digesting cellulose.

As weve seen, microbes are crucial to survival, so its imperative that theyre
passed on to offspring.

Theres a Japanese stink bug that does this by coating her eggs in a special fluid
that contains essential microbes. When the baby stink bugs hatch, they have a
microbe-rich first meal waiting for them. Its not unlike the important microbes
we get from our mother's milk.

Alliances with microbes need to be


carefully balanced.
Despite the helpful nature of millions of microbes, and the fact that there are
only about a hundred microbes that are considered harmful to us, theres a huge
market for antibacterial cleaning products.

In fact, there really isnt such a thing as a good or bad microbe; it all
depends on the environment.

For instance, there are millions of different microbes living in our gut that help
us digest our food. But if these microbes got onto our skin they could infect a
wound and cause all sorts of problems.

Farmers actually take advantage of this knowledge and use the


microbe Bacillus thuringiensis as a pesticide. When it comes in contact
with a caterpillar, it punches holes in the insects stomach; this releases gut
bacteria into the caterpillars bloodstream. Naturally, the immune system goes
into shock, killing the insect through inflammation.
This is why the right barriers need to be in place, so that microbes stay in their
proper, enclosed environment.

Insects do this with the help of special cells called bacteriocytes. These hide the
microbes from the immune system, fencing them in with harmful enzymes and
antibacterial chemicals, while also ensuring the microbes get the necessary
nutrients.

For larger and more complex animals, the situation gets more complicated. Our
microbes live around our organs, rather than in them, but our body helps make
sure only the good microbes get invited by setting the right conditions.

Our gut is full of powerful acids, making it an environment that only a select few
bacteria can survive.

Mucus is another means of defense for most vertebrate animals. Mucus carries
bacteriophages, which are domesticated viruses that feast on harmful microbes.
And last but not least, theres the immune system, which produces white blood
cells that act as a border patrol and capture any microbes that sneak through. If
any emergencies arise, it will make sure antibodies are built and other
countermeasures are prepared.

A diverse microbiome is crucial for our


health and immune system.
There are a lot of germaphobes out there, and you probably know someone with
strong opinions about hygiene. But if you really want to keep your body healthy,
there are some essential facts you should know.

To stay healthy, your immune system needs to be properly tuned like a


thermostat to the ideal setting.

Otherwise, your immunostat could be too low, which means that it only reacts
to major threats and ignores smaller ones. At this setting, your immune system
may neglect a threat that might turn into an infectious disease.

On the other hand, your immunostat could be too high, in which case it can be
jumpy and overreact by attacking harmless microbes like pollen or even your
own friendly bacteria. At this setting, you run the risk of coming down with an
allergic disease.

Exposure to microbes can help calibrate our immune system to its healthiest
setting. Unfortunately, however, a modern lifestyle tends to minimize such
exposure.

To stay away from both infectious diseases and allergic diseases, the immune
system needs to be set at the right level early on by being exposed to many
microbes. This often happens naturally in childhood, when kids are frequently
exposed to dust, dirt and mud.

But growing up in an urban environment means this is becoming less and less
common.

People in cities are showering with sanitized water, eating processed foods and
have far less contact with domesticated animals. This is part of an overall trend
in society thats putting a big focus on cleanliness.
To keep the immune system working at its best, there needs to be some healthy
competition; its harder for bad microbes to establish a stronghold in your gut
when as many good microbes as possible are staying active by constantly
competing for nutrients.

You can help with this by maintaining a diverse diet that appeals to many
different gut-microbes.

Eating a lot of fruits and vegetables is great for this. Plant-based foods are rich
in fiber, which is tougher to digest than processed foods and appeals to a wide
array of microbes.

Manipulating microbiomes for our


benefit could transform healthcare.
You might have noticed that most health tips these days are pretty simplistic.
Feeling tired and worn out? Take some vitamins. Have a cold? Take this
medicine to kill the virus.

But since our microbiome plays such a big part in our lives it only seems natural
that we should be able to manipulate this system to benefit our overall health.

This, however, is easier said than done. Our microbiomes are so large and
complex that simply adding one kind of microbe hardly ever has a noticeable
effect.

If youve started a diet of probiotic yogurt to help your digestive system, you
might have been disappointed with the lack of results. Thats because yogurts
microbial cultures are not natural to the gut, so its hard for them to make a
lasting impact.

Introducing a full microbiome, on the other hand, could save lives.

RePOOPulate is a project that helps people overcome a deadly infectious disease


known as Clostridium difficile, which has symptoms that include fever,
nausea and severe diarrhea. Its a tough disease to keep from recurring, but with
a healthy stool sample from a relative, doctors can transplant an entire
microbial system into the patient and get them on the path to recovery.
To make treatments more targeted and effective, doctors are also looking into
ways of manipulating microbes for specific purposes.

Most treatments, like aspirin or antibiotics, are broad and affect every cell in the
body in the same way. But microbes have the potential to be utilized in a highly
targeted way even releasing specific doses of a medication to a specific site.

In 2014, researchers at the Harvard Medical Institute were able to equip an E.


coli microbe with a genetic switch that made it turn blue in the presence of
antibiotics. Like a microscopic alarm bell, the microbe could tell doctors if a
patient had taken their medication.
This has inspired others to look at new ways to use gene switches. The hope is
that modified bacteria could act as an early detection system for diseases and
provide a warning before the first symptom even reveals itself.

Final summary
The key message in this book:

Microbes are everywhere, and for good reason theyre


vital to our well-being! Each species has a distinct
community of microbes and a way of maintaining that
partnership over generations. Taking microbes into
account, we can view our bodies, and those of the animals
around us, as thriving ecosystems instead of just
individuals. This perspective also opens up many new
possibilities in how we approach and understand our
medical and environmental problems.