Writer Ed Yong Unmasks the Beauty of the World’s Tiniest Creatures

Ed Yong, left, AAAS CEO Rush Holt and Edward Derrick talk before the AAAS-Hitachi lecture. | Juan David Romero/AAAS

Best-selling author and science writer Ed Yong offered a whirlwind tour of the world of microbes from their early dominance of Earth to their comfortable occupation of the human body during an evening lecture on 4 October as part of the annual AAAS-Hitachi Lecture Series. 

Yong’s exploration of microbial life featured the story of Antony van Leeuwenhoek, a 17th century Dutch draper and civil servant from the town of Delft – a topic that the first-time author examines in his book entitled “I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life,” which captures the history, science and significance of microbes.

Leeuwenhoek was no scientist, despite enjoying the requisite traits of curiosity, creativity and problem solving skills. Yet, he built, by-hand, microscopes that were the most powerful of his day. Leeuwenhoek put his microscope collection – the largest of the mid-1600s – to good use, observing and studying minuscule creatures he surprisingly found living in water droplets, plants and animals, Yong said.

“He was the first person in the entire world to see these things, tiny microscopic organisms,” said Yong, commemorating the world’s first person to view microbes. Flash forward to today: microbes play a central role in leading-edge scientific inquiries of the microbial habitat of the human gut, or microbiome, and hold the promise that scientists will be able to unleash the suspected curative abilities of some microbes.

In a nearly hour-long lecture full of fact-laced narrative vignettes, Yong presented a robust defense of microbes that he noted are primarily allies to humans, animals and plants. He dismissed as overdone, possibly dangerous, the modern world’s obsession with antibacterial agents in everything from hand soap to clothing fabrics.

Instead, Yong championed the benefits microbes provide to plants, animals and humans, and he defended his case with evidence from all corners of the world. Fewer than 100 types of microbes pose dangers, he said. Microbes assist in digestion, reproduction and even accelerate the pace of animal evolution, he demonstrated.

In one example, Yong noted that recent research has shown patients suffering from one of the most severe types of recurring diarrhea, brought on by the Clostridium difficile bacteria, have recovered after being administered a fecal transplant. Turns out, Yong said, “The No. 1 treatment for this is No. 2.”

Ed Yong, left, signs a copy of his book for Masahiko Yamaguchi, general manager of the Hitachi Corporate Offices in Washington and Los Angles, co-sponsor of the lecture. | Juan David Romero/AAAS

Yong cast light on the microbe Wolbachia as a wily and versatile bacterium now widespread across the planet. Scientists are currently testing the bacterium as a potential foil against the master vector – the Aedes aegypti mosquitoes – that infect humans with dengue fever, Zika among other diseases. Scientists have given Wolbachia boarding passes and loaded them onto the mosquitoes to determine if Wolbachia can show off their ability to disarm disease agents in the mosquitoes without killing the hosts.

The author’s microbial tour made clear that he is not alone in his passion for microbes. The study of microbes is likely to dominate scientific research in the years to come as efforts to inventory the tiny creatures advance. Yong showed a diagram that revealed only a small fraction has so far been identified.

In introducing Yong, Edward Derrick, chief program director, AAAS Center of Science, Policy and Society Programs, noted that the AAAS-Hitachi Lecture series has, since AAAS first partnered with the Hitachi Lectures on Science and Society in 2008, succeeded in sharing “the critical connections between science and society” with the public.