The Microbe Revolution: Award-Winning Science Writer Ed Yong on the Power of Microscopic Life

“Microbes have been around for the longest time, and we are only now starting to realize how important they are.”

Ed Yong is a science writer and journalist whose first book, the New York Times bestseller I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life investigates the powerful role that microbes play in shaping the planet and our lives. Currently, Ed is a staff writer for The Atlantic—his work has also appeared in National Geographic, The New Yorker, Wired, Nature, Science, and more. In a recent conversation with Heleo’s Mandy Godwin, he talked about the incredible research currently happening in microbiology and the challenges facing science in the future.

Mandy: You’ve been writing about science with The Atlantic and on your blog, Not Exactly Rocket Science, for a while, covering the microbiome. Can you recall the first time you learned about the microbiome?

Ed: It was actually very early on in my science-writing career. I’ve been writing about science for about ten years now. Almost as soon as I started, I wrote a couple of pieces about microbes. One was about bacteria that live in aphids and protect them from environmental extremes and parasites, and that can be passed from one individual to another through sex. Within a few months of that, I started writing about the microbes that live in humans and how they might influence our risk of becoming obese.

I had known that our body is a home to lots of microbes, but until I started writing about them, I don’t think I really appreciated the sheer scale of those communities or how profoundly they influence us.

Mandy: What are the most common misconceptions that you run into with readers?

Ed: One is the idea that some microbes are bad for us, some are good for us, and that they can be easily classified along those lines. It’s a very narcissistic point of view. We are part of the microbes’ world. We are just another ecosystem that they inhabit. They can do us good or do us harm depending on context. Even those that we depend on to digest our food and to train our immune system can go rogue if the conditions are wrong. We all need ways of containing our multitudes and selecting species that are more likely to do good, and even controlling the ones that have the potential to be beneficial.

Mandy: Did that influence your decision to cover the topic in a not human-centric way?

Ed: It was actually the first thing I wrote for the book. I wanted to have that mindset, that ethos, while I was constructing the other chapters.

As to why I decided to write this book and not make it just about people—I am interested in the wider world around me. I’ve always been a fan of natural history; I watch wildlife documentaries, and I went to zoos. That’s where my heart has always been. If you write a book about the microbiome of just humans, you miss out on a lot of great stories, great people. And the science of the human microbiome is in a very early stage. Going into the wider animal kingdom, we not only cover stories about really cool creatures that I find deeply fascinating, but it allows me to tell stories about more mature areas of science where we do know a lot and we don’t have to rely on so much speculation.

Mandy: You did a lot of on-the-ground-reporting—going to labs and interacting with different animals in order to do this research. Did you have a particular interaction that stood out to you as one of your favorites?

Ed: One highlight was when I visited a zoo with Rob Knight, a very well-respected microbiome researcher. I got to show what the world that’s familiar to us looks like through the eyes of someone who understands the microbiome, who sees animals and individuals as large communities and ecosystems. That is the whole point of the book, to take the familiar and make it unfamiliar and wondrous again. The visit to the zoo does that. It says, “Here is this world, a public setting, a zoo, that you’ve probably been to before, containing animals that you’re familiar with, like monkeys and meerkats, and here’s how differently this world looks when you know about microbes.”

Mandy: There’s almost an exponential increase in what we can think about when we know that it exists.

“All of these things we take for granted, and yet they are all profoundly influenced by bacteria and other microbes. This is an area of science that makes us question our concepts of what it is to be human.”

Ed: Absolutely. So many aspects of our lives take on this wondrous new quality. Everything from how we digest our food, to how the immune system works, to how our brains work, how we evolve, the smells that we give off, what happens when we eat food or we feed babies—all of these things we take for granted, and yet they are all profoundly influenced by bacteria and other microbes. This is an area of science that makes us question our concepts of what it is to be human. What does the self mean?

Mandy: You mention that it’s hard to wrap your mind around it as a layperson because it’s so complex. Do you feel hopeful that the public is receptive to that complexity?

Ed: My experience is that people are very ready to embrace this area of science. I think they get how cool it is. Complexity isn’t daunting to them. The world around us is complex: our cities, our economies, our societies. This is just saying that even things that we thought were simple and familiar, our bodies, our cells, they are as equally complex as, say, a rainforest or coral reef or grassland. People really like that. It’s awe-inspiring and people respond to awe in a very primal way.

Mandy: Even something as familiar as our bodies can have some evolutionary magic to them, because they’re more than we originally thought them to be.

Ed: Absolutely. There are so many different ways in which that plays out. In the book, I talk about how microbes can swap DNA, exchanging genes from one individual to another just as easily as you or I might swap conversation or ideas. Those changes happen all over the body. The microbes around us are continuously evolving, they’re swapping genes in this gigantic marketplace that spans our entire self. By changing the microbes we and other animals partner with, we can give and gain extraordinary new abilities, like immunity to poisons, or resistance to disease. By uniting the right bacteria with mosquitoes that spread human disease, we can even stop them from becoming vectors for viruses and turn them into dead ends. There are all these incredible things that microbes bestow upon their hosts.

Mandy: This isn’t a slow process—it’s a much faster evolution because these are bacteria, right?

Ed: That’s right. The bacteria evolve very quickly. In some ways, it’s still slow evolution punctuated by fast evolution. You’re still getting that slow build up of adaptations to a new challenge in the traditional Darwinian way, but those pass instantly from one microbe to another microbe and then from a microbe to host. There are insects that become instantly resistant to insecticides if they swallow the right detoxifying microbes. There are rats that can become instantly resistant to poisonous plants if they have the right microbes that can deal with those chemicals. I liken it to companies that have a skills gap in their staff. Rather than train their existing employees in how to do those skills, they can just recruit new ones who have those skills already in place.

Mandy: To bring back a concrete example, you mention that your favorite bacteria is Wolbachia. Why is that one so interesting?

Ed: Wolbachia is, for a start, incredibly common. It’s found in something like 4 in 10 species of insects and other arthropods and it’s really, really good at manipulating its host. Sometimes it causes problems for its hosts, males in particular. It can transform males into females or kill males outright because it only passes down the female line from mothers to daughters. It can also be a mutualist ally. It can provide vitamins to insects like bed bugs that are missing those vitamins from their meals.

The aspect of Wolbachia that I think is most interesting to us is that it stops the tiger mosquito, the insect that spreads things like Dengue fever and Zika, from transmitting the viruses behind those diseases. Wolbachia is really good at spreading through wild populations. If you release a small number of Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes into the wild, within a few generations of their time, or a few months in our time, the entire wild population should carry this microbe and thus be unable to spread these human diseases. This approach has tremendous potential for controlling things like Dengue and Zika, which are causing so much harm and suffering to us.

Mandy: That’s incredible. Given the problems that we’ve been having with Zika, are there efforts to use this in order to combat it?

Ed: There’s a huge amount of interest from the FDA, the World Health Organization, and things are moving quite quickly on that front.

Mandy: You also talk about how climate change has been affecting the microbiome populations of especially amphibians. Do you have any idea of how climate change is going to continue to influence microbes in the future?

Ed: Microbes themselves don’t have much to fear about climate change. They evolve quickly, they’ve been around for billions of years, they will be around for billions of years long after we’ve gone. In the meantime, it’s possible that changing climates may greatly affect the relationships between animals and their microbes.

For example, some of the bacteria that live in the cells of ants and other insects that are very important for providing them nutrients don’t fare very well at high temperatures. We might be inadvertently harming the insects or driving them out of certain places because their bacteria can’t cope with the heat. Corals famously don’t do well in high temperatures because they lose the microscopic algae they eat in order to create nutrients through photosynthesis. Their own microbiomes might turn against them under warmer conditions. There are many ways in which climate change disrupts these very important partnerships.
Climate change already has so many well-documented effects on the lives of animals and plants. This is just another angle on it. We already have more than enough evidence that this is a problem we need to tackle.

Mandy: Just another unfortunate problem.

Ed: Right. It’s just another way in which we are screwed.

Mandy: Speaking of the future, is there any exciting evidence or research that has come out since you published the book?

“There is this vast suite of bacterial diversity that we’ve been missing for a very long time. This newly drawn tree of life, this massive family tree of everything that lives on the planet, includes groups of bacteria that we didn’t even know about as recently as a year ago.”

Ed: There was a paper that came out quite recently, showing that there is this vast suite of bacterial diversity that we’ve been missing for a very long time. This newly drawn tree of life, this massive family tree of everything that lives on the planet, includes groups of bacteria that we didn’t even know about as recently as a year ago. Skip forward another year, what will that tree look like? Probably very different. Skip forward another hundred years, it will look very different again. It shows that microbes have been around for the longest time, and we are only now starting to realize how important they are and how diverse they are. We are only scratching the surface as to their diversity and their influence on our lives.

Mandy: It’s almost as though we humans are an afterthought.

Ed: In the story of the planet, the story of life on Earth, we are one paltry endnote at the end of this very, very long tale.

Mandy: I’ve noticed that you’ve written a couple of pieces for The Atlantic recently about the replication crisis in science and misaligned incentives. Along those lines, what would you consider the biggest challenges to science?

Ed: I think there is a very big incentives problem. The problem is that scientists are rewarded for finding things that are publishable, rather than things that are actually true. They are rewarded for churning out as many papers as possible in as high-impact journals as possible, which means that through no malice or strategy, the community naturally gravitates towards sloppier methods that produce very attention-grabbing results that aren’t necessarily true. They gravitate towards not spending a lot of time checking and replicating work and just finding the next new thing. You can see this playing out across different fields: psychology, biomedicine, neuroscience.

I don’t want to give across the impression that all science in rubbish, far from it. I write about this field and I love it, and there are so many great people and great discoveries, but there are a fair share of sloppy practices and a lot of what appears in the peer-review literature isn’t sound. I think a lot of it is due to these perverse incentives, of tying the fates of people in this field to something as abstract as publication caps.

Mandy: A systemic problem?

Ed: Absolutely. It is a widespread problem that transcends different fields. A lot of awareness has been raised, many people have been writing about it, but it has blossomed into a movement of late. There are lots of people who are very deeply vested in trying to improve its practices, to change its incentives, and to increase the reliability of our results.