June 2018

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

by Ed Yong

Chosen by: Professor Victoria Orphan, James Irvine Professor of Environmental Science and Geobiology and hosted by Henry Schreiber IV, Postdoctoral Scholar in Biology and Biological Engineering

A groundbreaking, marvelously informative “microbe’s-eye view” of the world that reveals a radically reconceived picture of life on earth.

For most of human existence, microbes were hidden, visible only through the illnesses they caused. When they finally surfaced in biological studies, they were cast as rogues. Only recently have they immigrated from the neglected fringes of biology to its center. Even today, many people think of microbes as germs to be eradicated, but those that live with us—the microbiome—are invaluable parts of our lives.

I Contain Multitudes lets us peer into that world for the first time, 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, giving us a grander view of life.

With humor and erudition, Ed Yong prompts us to look at ourselves and our fellow animals in a new light: less as individuals and more as the interconnected, interdependent multitudes we assuredly are. When we look at the animal kingdom through a microbial lens, even the most familiar parts of our lives take on a striking new air. We learn the secret, invisible, and wondrous biology behind the corals that construct mighty reefs, the glowing squid that can help us understand the bacteria in our own guts, the beetles that bring down forests, the disease-fighting mosquitoes engineered in Australia, and the ingredients in breast milk that evolved to nourish a baby’s first microbes. We see how humans are disrupting these partnerships and how scientists are now manipulating them to our advantage. We see, as William Blake wrote, the world in a grain of sand.

I Contain Multitudes is the story of these 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.

~From the back cover of I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life


Meet henry schreiber, iv

henry schreiber, iv

Dr. Henry Schreiber is a research scientist at Caltech who is fascinated by the chemical communication between humans and their microscopic friends in their gut microbial communities. Currently, he is researching how psychiatric illnesses, such as depression, alter the gut microbiome and the immune system in a way that makes those patients more likely to suffer gastrointestinal diseases, such as inflammatory bowel disease. Henry received his PhD from the Washington University School of Medicine where he identified common features of bacteria that enabled them to cause urinary tract infections, which is leading to the development of new antibiotic-sparing therapies. Henry is currently training in the lab of Dr. Sarkis Mazmanian, a world leading researcher of the gut-microbiome-brain axis, but looks forward to running his own research group in the future.  In addition to science, Henry enjoys board games, craft beer, and taking his dog on long walks with his spouse.

Henry schreiber, iv

by the book-book club host profile

Q. What are you reading or listening to now?
A. Currently, I am listening to the podcasts “How did this get made?” and “Hardcore History with Dan Carlin”. The last book I read before this was “The High Window” by Raymond Chandler.

Q. How do you organize your bookshelf?
A. My bookshelf is very unorganized... it's a mixture of old textbooks, novels, a few superhero comics, and a complete collection of Calvin and Hobbes.

Q. What was the most influential book you have read?
A. the most influential book I ever read was probably either Redwall by Jaques or the Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sachs. The former sparked my love of fantasy novels while the latter showed how effective science communication can be a joy to read.

Q. What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
A. I think people may be surprised to see Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates on my bookshelf. This book is a wonderfully written, eye-opening examination of being black in America and helped me understand the world we live in today. I very much recommend it to others.

Q. You're organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
A. I would love to have dinner with Dr. Oliver Sachs, Emily Dickinson and Bill Watterson.