I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life

by Ed Yong

Hardcover, 2016




Ecco, (2016)


This book lets us peer into the world of microbes -- not as germs to be eradicated, but as invaluable parts of our lives -- allowing us to see how ubiquitous and vital microbes are: they sculpt our organs, defend us from disease, break down our food, educate our immune systems, guide our behavior, bombard our genomes with their genes, and grant us incredible abilities. While much of the prevailing discussion around the microbiome has focused on its implications for human health, Yong broadens this focus to the entire animal kingdom, prompting us to look at ourselves and our fellow animals in a new light: less as individuals and more as the interconnected, interdependent multitudes we are. I Contain Multitudes is the story of extraordinary partnerships between the familiar creatures of our world and those we never knew existed. It will change both our view of nature and our sense of where we belong in it. --… (more)

Media reviews

Ed Yong is a talented British science writer, a staff writer for The Atlantic and the author of a wonderful blog, Not Exactly Rocket Science, hosted by National Geographic. “I Contain Multitudes,” his first book, covers a huge amount of microscopic territory in clear, strong, often epigrammatic
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prose. Yong has advanced degrees in biology, and he is remarkably well informed; he includes descriptions of many studies that are still unpublished, and even a few original ideas for new experiments. He is infectiously enthusiastic about microbes, and he describes them with verve.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member 2wonderY
Always interesting and occasionally elegant or laugh-out-loud funny. Highly recommended.
LibraryThing member JulieStielstra
The people who need to read this book most probably won't. Its best feature is that it explains (and explains... and explains some more) the incredible complexity of the microbiome, its inhabitants, its symbionts, its functioning, its dynamics and breathtakingly subtle balancing, rebalancing, and
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failures. This definitely NOT your "eat yogurt and cure all your ills"! The style is breezy, approachable, only occasionally tipping over into cuteness. Yong presents some fascinating stories; he knows how science works and can explain the exacting, lengthy, and sometimes tedious processes and experiments so you understand not only what they found, but how they figured it out. I was happy for all those scientists who, after the years spent probing the sexual apertures of fruit flies, finally get an affectionate and appreciative shout-out from Yong. There were parts that dragged, some repetition...it did at times read like a padded magazine piece. You need to be pretty interested in the topic to stick with it, but there's a lot of fascinating information, fun Latin terms, and a lovely history of van Leeuwenhoek's amazing microscopy. You will come away with a new appreciation for germs.
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LibraryThing member chelseaknits
Lots of interesting facts but in such a big pile I stopped absorbing them after a while.

Kind of like a mat of bacteria...
LibraryThing member adzebill
As a biologist who studies multicellular organisms, and avoided microbiology wherever possible, this is something of a revelation. Yong makes a good case for treating individuals as walking communities or ecosystems; evolutionary biology and medicine need to keep this in mind.
LibraryThing member g33kgrrl
This is an excellent book. It does a great job of addressing a fast-evolving field and is honest about the limitations of our knowledge of the topic. I was very impressed. (I also really appreciated Yong's visit to Chicago at the end!)

For anyone else reading the kindle edition - there are some
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photos at the end of the book that weren't linked to anywhere else, so make sure you catch those.
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LibraryThing member jhawn
The microbes within us and a grander view of life
LibraryThing member snash
A very readable summary of the most recent studies into the interactions of microbes with the rest of life illustrating their ubiquitous nature, often benefitting, sometimes harming.
LibraryThing member Gwendydd
This is a fascinating look at what we currently know about how animals and plants interact with the microbes all around us. This is still a very young field, and there is a lot to learn. Yong writes with clarity and humor, so this is a very enjoyable and enlightening read.
LibraryThing member addunn3
We are a world in ourselves. This is an amazing look at the world of life that keeps our bodies living.
LibraryThing member PDCRead
You may think that we are just made from muscles, blood cells, bones and a fair bit of DNA, but in between the gaps are microbes. Billions and billions of them. There are the odd rogue ones, but most of them are useful and make up an essential element of our being. Without them we could not live.
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They help us in countless ways, sculpting our organs, protecting us from disease and feeding and nourishing us; our gut contains a complete ecosystem that ensure that we extract all the energy we need.

Microbes work equal miracles in other animals too, providing the ethereal light that disguises a squid as they hunt, ensuring that koalas are able to digest the unpalatable eucalyptus leaves and the weevil that uses bacteria to make its shell before killing them. The modern worldview of eliminating all microbes is causing as much harm as it is good; people nowdays have a revulsion of all things bacterial, hence the raft of cleaning products that are designed to scour all surfaces and hands clean of these unwanted intruders. However, as Yong successfully argues in this book that not only we might be missing a trick, but our bacterial ecosystem is essential for our survival. A good example of this is in hospitals; the modern view is that all windows have to be locked shut to keep rogue microbes out, but the effect of this is that patients sit in their beds stewing in a lethal mix of micro-organisms. This hazardous situation can be simply solved by opening a window, this allows the dispersal and dilution of the potentially lethal ones. Simple, but very effective.

It is a fascinating account of the unseen creatures that live within and all around us. Yong takes us on this journey through the microscope to discover the most recent research from scientists all round the world and tell us of the secrets that are being discovered about microbes. Some of the treatments being developed have the potential to make people’s so lives much better; one example is RePOOpulate – as unappealing as it sounds! However, this treatment has worked miracles with a 94% success rate and no side effects, a success rate not seen in many other cures. Yong writes with an engaging and eloquent style and makes the science in here really accessible. Well worth reading. 4.5 stars.
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LibraryThing member CharlotteBurt
I fascinating book all about the microbes all around us and other creatures. I learned a lot in the process of reading this including how much we don't know about our microbiome. For instance, probiotic yoghurts don't work, well they don't repopulate our gut flora anyway, but scientists are
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successfully eliminating dengue fever by introducing a specific bacteria to the mosquitos.
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LibraryThing member murderbydeath
I wasn't sure what I was going to get when I started this book; obviously microbes, but was it going to be dry and academic, or worse, evangelical 'omg-microbes-are-the-answer-to-everything!'?

Luckily I got neither. Instead Yong's book was, from start to finish, utterly fascinating; never too
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arcane and never to simplistic, he found the sweet spot of science writing, creating an engaging narrative that never talks down to the reader. Anyone with an average vocabulary and an interest in the symbiotic world can pick up this book without feeling intimidated.

Microbes (bacteria, viruses, etc.) are everywhere. Everywhere. And bad news for the germaphobes: this is a good and necessary thing. Life on Earth simply could not exist without these microscopic machines. Plants and animals depend on bacteria for nutrients they can't get from food on their own, for turning on specific and necessary genes in the DNA, even for protecting them from other bacteria gone rogue.

Yong starts at the beginning of humans' awareness that there is life we cannot see. Typically these beginning chapters are the deadliest for me, as I get bored with the 'background' and impatient to get to the 'good stuff', but Yong made sure even the boring background was the 'good stuff'. I was never bored reading this book.

Left to my own devices, this review would go on forever, because there's just so much worth discussing, so I'm going to short-circuit myself and say this: I Contain Multitudes is a great book for learning how microbes help make all life possible; it's a 50/50 split, more or less, of information on microbe/human and microbes/other flora and fauna symbioses. It's easy to read, it's entertaining, and for at least myself, it was laugh out loud funny in one part. I finished with a much better understanding of the microbial world and my own digestive system (for now, I'm going to resist the temptation of probiotic supplements).

A very worth-while read and one I wouldn't hesitate to recommend to anyone with an interest.
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LibraryThing member ssperson
Really interesting and engaging.
LibraryThing member ffortsa
It is sometimes difficult to follow along in audio with science book, but generally I was able to do so with this excellent investigation of all the living things that live in us and everything else. The narration was clear enough for me to understand the various scientific names for both the bad
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and good buggies (don't ask me to spell them, of course), and if I see an ebook of this on sale I may buy it for occasional review.
From the fashionable discussion of our own gut to the hopes to find a natural defense against the fungus killing frogs, this book enlightened me and gives me a little hope that we will find ways to balance our internal and external ecosystems.

Books like these sometimes make me wish I'd understood better what the life of a scientist would be like, so that I might have made a more deliberate choice back when I was young. It would have been fun to work on the puzzles of nature described here
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LibraryThing member vguy
Most interesting and overriding point: microbes are not the simple enemy but part of a complex community. 20th century scientific consensus and its popular formulations are far too simplistic. As an audio book a bit overwhelming - all those multitudes; would repay a 2nd go or to read in print.
LibraryThing member tuusannuuska
For a person who knows next to nothing about microbes, this was a really interesting look into their impact in our lives, as well as into their possible future uses. I enjoyed the fact that this was written by a journalist, so the writing flowed easily and wasn't too dense, and even made me chuckle
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a couple of times.
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LibraryThing member steve02476
Wonderful science writing about a fascinating topic! I’m a big Ed Yong fan now, can’t wait for his next book, whatever it is.
LibraryThing member scottjpearson
Humanity has known about the microbial world of bacteria for centuries. Ever since technology for optical lenses progressed to a certain point, we’ve known that there is a super-small world that populates almost every region on this planet’s surface. What we didn’t know what how well it
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worked with animal bodies to promote life. The relatively recent development of microbiology taught us that, and ongoing research into the microbiome spills forth clues into how human life functions – and perhaps can be healed – with the help of microbes.

Ed Yong is a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer who engages the subject of microbes with an acute interest in how life works. Like most sciences, microbiology can appear as a dry subject when approached through textbooks. As a good science writer, Yong instead seeks to convey this same material but engages the human heart at the same time. He succeeds in spades.

I learned many things from this book. Life’s origins lie squarely with microbes. Further, the sustenance of today’s life still lies with microbes. That is, without microbes, most of earthly life would fall apart. For some, they supply necessary amino acids to form proteins. As a unit called the microbiome, they populate human guts to aid in digestion. Mixtures in probiotic yogurts may not be refined and targeted yet, but the basic concept makes scientific sense. Retooling this microbiome to promote healthy outcomes (especially with GI diseases) will be a noteworthy advance of the 21st century.

I often look at the plant and animal worlds around me to survey the diversity of life. I see nature all around me. This book taught me to exercise my imagination more to engage the microbial world in this mix, too. Microbes are not evil; many, in fact, are helpful. Killing all microbes will not lead to cleanliness but to death for all. We humans need to learn to work with these lifeforms to promote life, and detailed insights supplied by writers like Yong will do just that. Knowledge of microbial life has recently exploded, and digging into its nuggets of wisdom can enrich your mind, soul, and body.
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LibraryThing member KallieGrace
I love microbiology, it was one of my favorite classes in undergrad. Microbes just make sense, they are everywhere and they interact in fascinating ways, responsible for so many things. This book is very accessible, in part because nearly everything covered relates directly to the reader in some
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way. While microbes are able to influence so many aspects of our lives, from our moods to our allergies to our weight, I think there could have been more emphasis on how they are not the whole picture. I know *certain* people who would hear microbes can influence your mood and then insist the cure for depression is changing your diet, or rather, you aren't even depressed, you just eat crap. There is a lot more nuance and complexity to our systems, and as amazing as microbes are, we have to bring that complexity to every issue we encounter with them. Overall, I really enjoyed this and learned a few things.
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LibraryThing member markm2315
This is an excellent review of the popular topic, microbial symbiosis. Mr. Yong covers the symbiotic relationships between bacteria and their uni- and multicellular hosts, their microenvironments, and the various functions that the hosts and microbes have evolved to share or trade.
LibraryThing member norabelle414
Microbes are everywhere. They’re in the air we breathe and on every surface we touch and in the water we drink and the food we eat. They’re inside our bodies, helping us digest our food and protecting us from infections. They’re even inside our own cells in the form of mitochondria. This book
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details some of the things bacteria can do and some of the ways they affect us, as well as research that is being done to try to manipulate bacteria or manipulate the environment using bacteria.

My expectations were very high for this book, and the results are mixed. It’s a real rollercoaster - some of the research on amazing things bacteria can do and the ways it affects the world are incredible, but they’re intermixed with sections about how this bacteria or that bacteria could help someone lose five pounds (which the book assumes must be “healthy”) or cause them to lose 5 pounds (which the book assumes must be “unhealthy”). I was hoping for something more critical of assumptions like that, but maybe this was more marketable.

The most interesting thing I learned about microbes from this book did have to do with animal diets, however. A lot of the food that animals consume (particularly plants) is not digested by the animal themselves, but by the bacteria that live inside them, which then produce smaller molecules that can be digested by the animal. In some cases (multi-chamber-stomached herbivores like cows) the animals even digest the bacteria themselves as their “food” after feeding them grass or hay. This is especially true of mammalian breast milk, which contains very large sugar molecules which can’t be digested by babies at all. The milk feeds the microbes, and the microbes feed the babies. Incredible stuff.
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