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I Contain Multitudes

The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life

By Ed Yong
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  • Contains 7 key ideas
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I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong

I Contain Multitudes (2016) peers into the microscopic world of microbes, and offers fascinating insight into the countless ways in which our lives are influenced by them. You’ll find out how ancient microbes helped make the world livable for mankind and how they continue to help all of Earth’s living creatures through remarkable and essential partnerships.

Key idea 1 of 7

Microbes are everywhere, helping our planet function.

Microbes have been around for so long that it’s hard to comprehend, so let’s look at it another way: If the Earth’s 4.5 billion years of existence were one calendar year, humans would have shown up in the last 30 minutes of December 31st, five days after the extinction of the dinosaurs. Microbes, on the other hand, have been around since March.

That’s a long time ago, and for a while they were the only living things around. But even then they were hard at work, shaping the planet we see before us.

The term “microbes” actually refers to a wide array of tiny single-cell organisms, such as various species of bacteria and fungi.

Just how tiny are they? Well, microbes are so small that a million of them could fit on the head of a pin.

But this doesn’t mean their role is insignificant. Microbes are always busy breaking down various molecules all around us, which is how soil gets enriched and nutrients such as carbon and nitrogen complete their environmental cycles.

Microbes also played a vital role in creating Earth’s atmosphere. Microbes were the first living things to use photosynthesis, a process whereby an organism uses energy from sunlight to convert carbon dioxide and water into sugar. The microbes then ate this sugar, releasing oxygen as they did so and creating our atmosphere in the process

This also set the foundations for the carbon cycle without which life couldn’t exist – the absorption of carbon dioxide by plants, the consumption of plants by animals, the exhalation of carbon dioxide by animals.

Another reason microbes are so amazing is their ability to adapt to just about any environment. You’ll find them in the ice of Antarctica, up among the clouds or down at the edge of an underwater volcano, where the temperature reaches 400° C.

Microbes can adapt to these extreme environments because they evolve at an extremely rapid pace.

By forming a physical link from one cell to another, pieces of DNA can be sent and added to a genome. Therefore, microbes can share an adaptation from their neighbor and pass these new genes along during reproduction, making evolution much faster than the process of natural selection.

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