Ed Yong just published a new article on The Atlantic regarding our immune system and the COVID-19 pandemic that I found very insightful and interesting. I read his book, “I Contain Multitudes” last year and I loved it. You can find my review of the book below.
Here’s an excerpt from the article from The Atlantic:
There’s a joke about immunology, which Jessica Metcalf of Princeton recently told me. An immunologist and a cardiologist are kidnapped. The kidnappers threaten to shoot one of them, but promise to spare whoever has made the greater contribution to humanity. The cardiologist says, “Well, I’ve identified drugs that have saved the lives of millions of people.” Impressed, the kidnappers turn to the immunologist. “What have you done?” they ask. The immunologist says, “The thing is, the immune system is very complicated …” And the cardiologist says, “Just shoot me now.”
The thing is, the immune system is very complicated. Arguably the most complex part of the human body outside the brain, it’s an absurdly intricate network of cells and molecules that protect us from dangerous viruses and other microbes. These components summon, amplify, rile, calm, and transform one another: Picture a thousand Rube Goldberg machines, some of which are aggressively smashing things to pieces. Now imagine that their components are labeled with what looks like a string of highly secure passwords: CD8+, IL-1β, IFN-γ. Immunology confuses even biology professors who aren’t immunologists—hence Metcalf’s joke.
“I am large. I contain multitudes.”Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, Part 51
Science journalist, Ed Yong’s book, “I Contain Multitudes,” is a nonfiction, science book on the “multitudes” of microbes that live inside our bodies and around us in the natural world everywhere we go. In recent past, the intense focus on hygiene and cleanliness has been taken to the extreme. However, what if our vigilance to destroy every “germ” has led to new health challenges like a rise in allergies and autoimmune diseases that cause our immune system to overreact to threats that in the past were kept in check by the bacteria living inside us, or our natural antibiotics designed into our bodies.
Yong’s book starts at the beginning of biology with Dutch scientist Antony Van Leeuwenhoe, who first discovered the existence of bacteria more than 350 years ago. Just under 100 years ago in 1928, Alexander Fleming created the first antibiotic, named penicillin. After the background of the early years of microbiology, Yong focuses most of his book on the most recent discoveries in microbiology and the technology that allows us to study the microbiome of any type of organism, from humans to aphids, and how the discoveries from those research studies are helping us understand the intricate symbiotic relationships between microorganisms and their hosts.
The effects and long-term implications of adjusting an individual’s microbiome are still unclear and Yong warns against believing it a “magic bullet” that will fix every person’s ailments with a few probiotics that can fix everything from obesity to autism to anxiety and depression. It seems plausible that there may be a relationship with some diseases and conditions that are affected by the multitudes living within us based on characteristic signatures of the human biome and various illnesses, however, we do not yet contain enough scientific studies with desired outcomes to say with any certainty that these “adjustments” could really be worth any short or long-term side effects that tinkering with the human biome might produce.
One of Yong’s main goals in writing the book, as far as I can tell, was to bring awareness to the field of microbiology and to help people understand that the hated germs that everyone fears could very well be keeping your life in a homeostasis that allows you to live and thrive and reproduce and ensure the health of all the people around you. Despite the heady information that usually soared above my head, the read was very fascinating and helped me see the world around me in a completely new light.
I loved this book and wholly recommend it!
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