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An Elegant Defense

The Extraordinary New Science of the Immune System: A Tale in Four Lives

By Matt Richtel
19-minute read
Audio available
An Elegant Defense: The Extraordinary New Science of the Immune System: A Tale in Four Lives by Matt Richtel

An Elegant Defense (2019) is an erudite and approachable exploration of the immune system. Using the difficult story of a dear friend as a starting point, author Matt Richtel leads the reader through a mind-boggling tour of one of the world’s most complex systems – what he calls our “elegant defense.”

  • Curious readers wondering how the immune system works
  • Students of immunology
  • People seeking better health

Matt Richtel is a writer and journalist. His reporting for the New York Times won him a Pulitzer Prize in 2010; since then, he’s written several novels, including Doomsday Equation and Dead on Arrival. His nonfiction titles include A Deadly Wandering, which was named one of 2014’s best books by the San Francisco Chronicle and Amazon.

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An Elegant Defense

The Extraordinary New Science of the Immune System: A Tale in Four Lives

By Matt Richtel
  • Read in 19 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 12 key ideas
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An Elegant Defense: The Extraordinary New Science of the Immune System: A Tale in Four Lives by Matt Richtel
Synopsis

An Elegant Defense (2019) is an erudite and approachable exploration of the immune system. Using the difficult story of a dear friend as a starting point, author Matt Richtel leads the reader through a mind-boggling tour of one of the world’s most complex systems – what he calls our “elegant defense.”

Key idea 1 of 12

Life inside you is like a massive festival – and your immune system is in charge of ejecting dangerous gate-crashers.

Imagine a huge party – a massive, rip-roaring carnival with hundreds of billions of attendees. Where is this wild, gargantuan bash with a guest list well over a hundred times larger than Earth’s human population?

It’s inside you. The merrymakers are your own cells, as well as billions of bacteria and viruses. This party is what the author calls the Festival of Life.

At this festival, making sure everything runs smoothly, are janitors and handymen, security personnel and emergency responders – the cells that constitute your immune system. They are your body’s elegant defense. They attend to tissue damage and clean up toxins. And they fight off malicious intruders known as pathogens.

Pathogens are disease-causing agents, and they come in three main forms: bacteria, viruses and parasites. For the purposes of these blinks, we’ll be focusing only on the first two.

In their most dangerous forms, you can think of them as tiny little killers. They’re small – really small. You can fit a few thousand bacteria inside one human cell. Viruses are even smaller. A few thousand would fit inside a single bacterium. 

But a quick caveat: though some bacteria and viruses are pathogenic, most aren’t. In fact, a mere one percent of all bacteria are likely to cause illness. And as for viruses, some of them are crucial to our survival. For instance, about eight percent of our genetic material was created by retroviruses, a special variety of virus that invades human cells and literally becomes part of our DNA.

So viruses and bacteria aren’t inherently bad – far from it. But a handful of them are deadly indeed.

Just take the bacterium known as Yersinia pestis. It’s responsible for causing the Black Plague, which killed upward of 30 percent of Europe’s population in the fourteenth century. Some other nasty bacteria include salmonella, E. coli and tetanus bacillus, while the long list of deadly viruses includes Ebola, HIV, smallpox, flu and rabies.

Prior to 1900, influenza (a viral infection) and pneumonia (an inflammation that can be viral or bacterial) were major killers, responsible for more deaths out of every 100,000 patients than any other disease. Nowadays, it’s rare to hear of someone dying of the flu.

How did we beat back these pathogens? Well, you’re going to get the long answer, which is the story of the discovery of the immune system.

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