Coming June 2018
I contain Multitudes: The microbes within us and a grander view of life
Hosted by Professor Victoria Orphan
By Ed Yong
Professor Victoria Orphan
Professor Victoria Orphan, James Irvine Professor of Environmental Science and Geobiology and 2016 MacArthur Fellow, was elected in 2015 to the American Academy of Microbiology through a highly selective peer-review process. For the past 20 years, she has studied anaerobic marine microorganisms that live within the seafloor and breathe methane. Through their unusual metabolism, these organisms restrict the amount of methane that seeps into the ocean and atmosphere. Methane is a much stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, so understanding how it cycles through the oceans and atmosphere is an important component of modeling Earth's climate.
Recently, the Orphan and her team discovered evidence that these microbes inhabit not only sediments on the ocean floor but also huge calcium carbonate mounds that can rise hundreds of feet above the seafloor. The mounds represent a previously unrecognized biological sink for methane that could be preventing large amounts of the potent greenhouse gas from reaching the atmosphere. Professor Orphan completed a BA (1994) and PhD (2002) at UC Santa Barbara. She was appointed assistant professor at Caltech in 2004; associate professor and then professor in 2010.
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.