Antonie van Leeuwenhoek ran a draper’s shop and was a local politician in Delft, Netherlands in the mid-17th century. During this time, he developed an interest in making lenses and hit upon a technique for making lenses with extremely high magnifications for the time, 270x and perhaps even 500x normal magnification. These lenses allowed him to discover that there were tiny organisms living in his mouth.
Ed Yong, Joss Fong, and Julia Belluz discuss van Leeuwenhoek’s achievement and microorganisms in general in the video above and in an interview.
It is undeniable that antibiotics have been a tremendous health good, maybe one of the greatest health goods of all time. They have brought so many infectious diseases to heel and saved so many lives.
But it’s also clear that they have negative effects on our microbiome. So they are indiscriminate weapons. They kill the microbes that we depend upon and that are good for us as well as the ones that are causing disease and causing us harm. They’re like nukes, rather than precision weapons.
So we’re in a difficult situation now, where on the one hand we’re running out of antibiotics, and the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria is a huge public health threat. But at the same time we’re aware of the need to preserve the microbiome.
Yong just came out with a book on microbes called I Contain Multitudes. (Perhaps Whitman was speaking literally?)
Crackerjack science writer Ed Yong is coming out with his very first book in a month’s time. It’s called I Contain Multitudes (good title!) and is about “astonishing partnerships between animals and microbes”.
Every animal, whether human, squid, or wasp, is home to millions of bacteria and other microbes. Ed Yong, whose humor is as evident as his erudition, prompts us to look at ourselves and our animal companions in a new light-less as individuals and more as the interconnected, interdependent multitudes we assuredly are.
The microbes in our bodies are part of our immune systems and protect us from disease. In the deep oceans, mysterious creatures without mouths or guts depend on microbes for all their energy. Bacteria provide squid with invisibility cloaks, help beetles to bring down forests, and allow worms to cause diseases that afflict millions of people.
I will read anything described as “like a David Attenborough series shot through a really good microscope”.
Update: Bill Gates liked I Contain Multitudes so much he sat down for a chat with Yong to discuss the particulars.
We are also utterly inseparable from them. Yong illustrates that we are at least as much microbe as human. We literally have more microbial cells living inside our bodies than human cells. And even the cells we label “human” are part microbe. With the exception of red blood cells and sperm, all our cells are powered by mitochondria, which are likely the descendants of ancient bacteria that became integrated into the type of cells that subsequently gave rise to all complex life.