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Review: “I Contain Multitudes” by Ed Yong

I found Ed Yong’s new book, “I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life” a delightful read. It is technical enough for those of us with a science background, but easy to understand for those without that background. He gives wonderful examples (and even pictures!) all throughout the book and these are backed up by scientific studies all listed in a bibliography for further research. Why is this important? Because there is so much hype about the microbiome right now it is necessary to separate the fact from the fiction. Some authors and companies would have the bacteria in our bodies responsible for every known disease, which simply can’t be true.

Ever since I took several micro courses toward my degree in biology many moons ago, I have been fascinated with the amazing world of bacteria. I have been reading every article on the microbiome that has been written…well many at least. I have taken an online course taught by one of the preeminent microbiologists, Dr. Ron Knight. And I even sent my fecal specimen to uBiome just for fun. I know that my gut bacteria changes on a daily basis and a sample taken at one end of the gut is not necessarily representative of what is going along farther up the canal. But it was fun to see that I have a pretty diverse microbiome compared to others who have taken the test. And it did seem to reflect the fact that I am an omnivore.

But getting back to the book, even with all the reading I do on the subject, I learned so much from Mr. Yong’s book. I learned to put things in perspective. For instance lately everyone has tried to link certain bacteria with obesity. But in reality many of the studies on the subject done to date are questionable. After going through an easy to understand statistics example, the author states, “ Human geneticists faced the same problem…once sequencing technology became cheap and powerful enough to analyze millions of samples, rather than dozens or hundreds, many of these early results turned out to be false positives. The human microbiome field is going through the same teething problems.”

Because I breast fed my three children and my youngest daughter is currently breast-feeding my granddaughter, I was especially interested in all the parts in the book on breast milk. Who knew there is an entire research institute, run by Bruce German, set up just to study breast milk? I learned that most studies to date were done on cows milk (funded by the dairy industry, no doubt) and that many thought breast milk is “just a bag of chemicals”. But German says it is “anything but that.” The human breast milk has over 200 milk oligosaccharides (HMOs, for short), which are “ the third-biggest part of human milk…and they are a rich source of energy for growing babies…But babies cannot digest them.” Instead these milk oligosaccharides are there to feed one specific subspecies of bacteria in the baby’s gut, Bifidobacterium longum infantis and one of its job is to “outcompete any other gut bacterium.” Mr. Yong goes on to explain, “ As it digests HMOs, B.infantis releases short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) that feed an infant’s gut cells- so while mothers nourish this microbe, the microbe in turn nourishes the baby.” There is much more written about Mr. German’s work and it is really fascinating. He even has mothers donating their unused breast milk for research.

There is too much in the book to cover in this review, such as the history of bacterial discoveries, antibiotics, and the problem with todays over use of antibiotics. Mr. Yong gives praise to many scientists who stuck to their guns about some discovery even if they were laughed at during their careers until vindicated many years later. He tells us stories about how coral reefs depend on bacteria, about bacteria engineered by scientists in mosquitos to fight malaria, and about animals that can eat a normally poisonous food due to the bacteria in their guts. The book is a great read. Just go buy it now and settle down to learn a lot as well as have a fun time.