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Learn the key ideas of the book by Ed Yong

I Contain Multitudes

Discover the world of microbes and how they are part of our history

Microbes contribute to our lives in such a complete and complex way, that it is impossible to ignore their importance. I Contain Multitudes shows us how the animal kingdom can be wonderful when viewed from the perspective of the united and cooperative universe that it really is. Microbes make up the ecosystems present in our body, with which we live in symbiosis for our entire existence, establishing alliances which can bestow us with extraordinary powers. 

I Contain Multitudes
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Microbes were the first inhabitants of this earth and it is thanks to them that we live in an oxygenised world

Animals appeared in a world that had already been teeming with microbes for billions of years.

All visible organisms, which grouped together we call "nature", were the last to arrive on Earth, which was already more than four and a half billion years old when they finally appeared. To get a better grasp of this concept, we can group it into a more relatable timeframe. Let's imagine that it is December 31st, and that the year that is about to end represents the life of the planet; using this proportion, we can say that human beings have existed for just over half an hour! Just over half an hour compared to a full year is the proportion of the existence of men and women on Earth to microbes. Plants and animals would already be present by early December, and going back in time, the first multicellular organisms would have appeared in October. So life on Earth was born in March, and from March to October the only inhabitants present were unicellular organisms, or microbes.

Microbes were the first organisms to inhabit the planet and to change it, the first organisms able to produce their own nourishment, exploiting the energy of the sun, releasing oxygen as a waste product, for the benefit of the atmosphere. Microbes have the ability to enrich the soil and eliminate pollutants, and it is thanks to their contribution that we live in an oxygenated world. They are literally everywhere; in the depths of the oceans, in the Antarctic ice, in the clouds, even in the very hot hydrothermal springs.

We human beings have evolved among them as well as from them. Microbes cannot be seen with the naked eye, and are generally considered to be carriers of germs and diseases. This stereotype does not do them justice: the majority of microbes are not pathogenic, do not make you ill, and are actually essential to the continuance of life on Earth. Of all the existing species of bacteria, the ones that cause diseases are less than a hundred, the thousands of species that are found in our body are harmless, and many of them protect the balance and health of the body. They help us digest food, produce vitamins and minerals, break down toxins and dangerous chemicals, and protect us from disease by taking space away from dangerous microbes or by eliminating them directly. They intervene in the construction of our body, educate the immune system and contribute to the development of our nervous system.


The key ideas of "I Contain Multitudes"

Microbes were the first inhabitants of this earth and it is thanks to them that we live in an oxygenised world
From Pasteur onwards, bacteriology became a science that studied microbes to destroy them; in fact they are fundamental components of life on our planet
Microbes are the builders and protectors of our bodies and we interact with them throughout our whole life
It really does depend on the context: microbes are never good or bad at all, and our relationship with them is made up of continuous adjustment and negotiation
Lack of balance between microbial ecosystems can cause disease: dysbiosis is an imbalance between different species
A lifestyle that involves little interaction with microbes leads to a weakening of the immune system, and therefore to poor health
Microbes and bacteria make it possible for many species to survive in otherwise impossible conditions
Bacteria mutate and evolve at an astonishing rate and can also be valuable partners in our evolution
Instead of removing microbes from our bodies and environments, we might want to consider adding them, in order to create microbiomes that support the life of our planet
Take-home message

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