Wonderful "Wee Beasties"
Yes, this winter's flu season has been the worst in many years. And, okay, an outbreak of norovirus caused concern at the 2018 Winter Olympics. And sure, antibiotic resistance is an against-the-clock public health problem that's prompted scientists to look for alternatives to penicillin. If we take a different view, the world of microbial life is fascinating. These books explore the tiny creatures that seem invisible but live everywhere in the world.
Without microbes, life on earth could not have become the infinitely complex organisms that cover the planet. So says Paul Falkowski in Life’s Engines: How Microbes Made Earth Habitable (2015). Falkowski starts with a charming personal account of how he came to study microbiology, which is a lifelong passion that began with his examination of his childhood aquarium. The rest of the book examines microbes and their functions as nanomachines. All life, large and small, continues to rely on the biochemical mechanisms of microbes. Life's Engines includes some terrific illustrations and explanations that makes the topic less abstract to non-scientists.
Married scientists build an organic garden from sterile rock in The Hidden Half of Nature: the Microbial Roots of Life and Health (2016). David Montgomery (a geologist) and Anne Biklé (a biologist) documented how their own garden went from barren to lush and examined the role of microbial diversity and abundance in that transformation. The gardener in me loved reading about the "rhizosphere," which is a term that describes how plants and microbes work together for protection and nutrient generation. The health of an ecological system has an outsize dependency on these creatures, which are so small that if "a bacterium [were] the size of a pitcher’s mound, you would be about the size of California."
Ed Yong's I Contain Multitudes: the Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life (2016) is a new classic in the field of science writing. Vast in scope, Yong starts with an examination of a pangolin and continues with the many ways microbes can define species' characteristics, appearance, and behavior. Yong's research for this book is incredible—he has read hundreds of papers and interviewed many scientists and yet has organized and presented his book in a way that's illuminating and philosophical for any reader with an interest in how humans and other plants and animals benefit from the little creatures we host.
Alanna Collen is an evolutionary biologist who points out the rather shocking fact that in a human body, 90 percent of the cells within are not our own. In 10% Human: How Your Body's Microbes Hold the Key to Health and Happiness (2015), Collen looks at how microbes operate in and on our bodies. She says that antibacterial products are a "triumph of advertising and assumption over science" and shows how our actions to reduce germs in total can be self-defeating when it comes to reducing disease. The big focus and strength of 10% Human is in Collen's thorough catalog of modern diseases that blossomed after antibiotic usage became widespread.
Speaking of the dangers of antibiotics overuse, Martin Blaser's Missing Microbes: How the Overuse of Antibiotics is Fueling Our Modern Plagues (2014) is an urgent and important warning. Blaser is the director of the Human Microbiome Program at NYU and his book is passionately written, cautioning doctors, farmers and consumers to alter our attitude and behavior toward microbes and antibiotics. The human microbiome is like an invisible organ that helps keep us alive, and it suffers if we kill off our "long-term residents" to make space for more dangerous organisms.
To learn more about the most recent developments in microbiology, check out our Science in Context database.