Each Of You Is A Multitude, Here's Why
Our picture of life is going through a major shift. Ed Yong's book I Contain Multitudes reveals that a genome generally doesn’t contain all the genes an organism needs. Symbiosis isn’t rare, it's the rule. And we're just the icing on life's vast microbial cake.
1. Your view of how life works, and of what you are, will be transformed by Ed Yong’s book I Contain Multitudes. It works like a text-microscope, a device to show you what you can’t otherwise see or fathom. It reveals seismic shifts are afoot in biology.
3. Yong calls that individual-centered view “a pleasant fiction.” Life takes large-scale cooperation (or partnerships) far beyond the inherited genome. For instance, human cells have ~25,000 genes but leverage ~500 times more microbial genes. Your body harbors ~30 trillion human cells and ~39 trillion microbial cells.
4. Humans and our cohabiting microbes (our microbiome) are so entangled that certain sugars in mother’s milk feed her baby’s gut microbes, not her baby (which can’t digest them). And such cross-species metabolism is very common.
5. A genome generally doesn’t contain all the genes an organism needs. Even anatomies aren’t just an unfolding of inherent traits. Bodies are “continuously built and reshaped,” by complex conversations with our surrounding sea of microbes.
6. By leveraging microbial genes, we can evade evolution’s slowness. They’re a form of fast intra-generational “adaptation,” letting us add biochemical capabilities we didn’t ourselves evolve. Microbiomes are like aftermarket add ons, or plug-and-play peripherals on biology’s “USB“ ports.
7. Yong’s “we” can be one of the widest “we’s” ever used—it often means all multicellular life.
8. So seismic are the shifts Yong describes, that they are shaking out new concepts, terms, and metaphors. For instance, holobiont, hologenome, horizontal gene transfer, and dysbiosis.
9. “Every natural animal and plant is a holobiont consisting of a host and diverse symbiotic microbes and viruses.”
10. So symbiosis isn’t rare, it's the rule. We (that wide we) have always been surrounded by teeming microbes. They arose 2 billion years before us. We plug into their biosphere. We’re the icing on a vast microbial cake.
11. One species relies so heavily on symbiont services that it has no mouth, no guts, no butts.
12. Symbiotic partnerships are of many kinds. The can’t-live-without-you kind. The harmless kind. The destructive/parasitic kind. They’re not conflict-free, and can shift kinds. But discernible principles govern stable survivable partnerships (e.g., suppressing selfish cheating for health of the whole).
13. This new worldview pushes Yong to try many new metaphors: You’re a garden, a zoo, a city, a colony, but most usefully you are multiple complex ecosystems (forearms = dry desserts, nasal cavity = moist jungles). That metaphor helps us reimagine immune systems as park rangers, not defending armies.
15. “Dysbiosis” is caused by microbiome imbalances (~like disrupted ecological webs). It’s implicated in many diseases.
16. How this alters biology’s big picture isn’t clear. E.g., whether it’s survival-of-the-fittest “hologenome” is hotly debated (see here & here, hat tip to Seth Bordenstein for that last balancing link).
17. I’d suggest enlarging Dawkins’s vehicle idea. Every gene needs its vehicle-mates to thrive, but also its microbiome genes, to varying degrees, sometimes just as much (suggesting selection might operate on this new kind of group level).
18. Microbial partners are non-genetically “inherited,“ passed on environmentally (like constructed niches).
19. Microbes run bustling gene-trading marketplaces, horizontal gene transfer is common.
20. Yong’s text skillfully zooms between biochemistry and the entire biosphere, entertainingly adjusting its depth of focus to reveal major changes. They’re almost like a biological Copernican shift, correcting a myopic individual-centered mindset. Yong says, “perhaps it is less that I contain multitudes and more that I am multitudes.”
Illustration by Julia Suits, author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions, and The New Yorker cartoonist.
Sharon Salzberg, world-renowned mindfulness leader, teaches meditation at Big Think Edge.
- Try meditation for the first time with this guided lesson or, if you already practice, enjoy being guided by a world-renowned meditation expert.
- Sharon Salzberg teaches mindfulness meditation for Big Think Edge.
- Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
The navigation tool has placed a school in the sea, among other things.
- Google has apologized for the sudden instability of its maps in Japan.
- Errors may stem from Google's long-time map data provider Zenrin – or from the cancellation of its contract.
- Speculation on the latter option caused Zenrin shares to drop 16% last Friday.
They didn't know it, but the rituals of Iron Age Scandinavians turned their iron into steel.
- Iron Age Scandinavians only had access to poor quality iron, which put them at a tactical disadvantage against their neighbors.
- To strengthen their swords, smiths used the bones of their dead ancestors and animals, hoping to transfer the spirit into their blades.
- They couldn't have known that in so doing, they actually were forging a rudimentary form of steel.
A new computer model solves a pair of Jovian riddles.
- Astronomers have wondered how a gas giant like Jupiter could sit in the middle of our solar system's planets.
- Also unexplained has been the pair of asteroid clusters in front of and behind Jupiter in its orbit.
- Putting the two questions together revealed the answer to both.
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by The Big Think, Inc. All rights reserved.