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Good Reads  Organismal to Molecular Biology  Microbiology

Invisible Friends How Microbes Shape our Lives and the World around Us

Popular Science
By: Jake M Robinson(Author)
290 pages, 42 b/w illustrations
An optimistic and hopeful romp through microbiology, Invisible Friends encourages readers to rethink their relationship with nature.
Invisible Friends
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  • Invisible Friends ISBN: 9781784274337 Hardback Mar 2023 In stock
Price: £16.99
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About this book

As we continue to live through a pandemic, all eyes are on microbes: an imperceptible and pervasive threat that hangs heavy on the air and clings to surfaces. But the reality of micro-organisms is far more diverse and life-sustaining than such a notion would have us believe (hence the title of this book). Not only are they omnipresent, but we are highly attuned to their workings – both in the world at large and right here within our own bodies. Meanwhile, cutting-edge microbiome research is changing our understanding of reality, challenging fundamental concepts of free will and individuality. Threaded through everything are microbes: the very glue that holds ecosystems together.

This topical, engaging and original book counters the prevailing narrative of microbes as the bane of society, along the way providing much-needed clarity on the overwhelmingly beneficial role they play. We discover how the microbiome is highly relevant to environmental and social equity issues, while there's also discussion about how microbes may influence our decisions: even the way we think about how we think may need to be revisited. Invisible Friends introduces the reader to a vast, pullulating cohort of minute life – friends you never knew you had.


1. The microbiome and humans as walking ecosystems
2. Rekindling old friendships in new landscapes
3. Antibiotic resistant landscapes
4. Microbes and social equity
5. The Psychobiotic Revolution
6. The Lovebug Effect
7. The Holobiont Blindspot
8. The glue that holds our ecosystems together
9. Microbes and trees
10. Rewild. Regenerate. Restore
11. Biointegrated design
12. Microbiome-Inspired Green Infrastructure (MIGI)
13. To catch a thief: forensic microbiology
14. Microbes in outer space
15. You are what your microbes eat
16. Nature connectedness
Microbes 101


Customer Reviews (1)

  • An optimistic and hopeful romp through microbiology, though it gets starry-eyed in places.
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 18 May 2023 Written for Hardback

    As the invisible glue that holds the world together, microbes might well be some of the most underappreciated life forms on our planet. Invisible Friends discusses the many beneficial and vital roles microbes play in our lives. This is an enthusiastic and hopeful romp through microbiology that encourages readers to rethink their relationship with nature and see themselves as embedded in it. Keep your critical thinking caps at hand though, as the book gets starry-eyed in places.

    Microbial ecologist Jake M. Robinson is a man on a mission: to challenge our negative perception of microbes and to encourage people to rethink their place in nature by showing how, when it comes down to it, microbes run the show. As used here, microbes encompass not just bacteria but also fungi, algae, viruses, archaea, and protozoa. I expected coverage of the microbiome, and Robinson indeed discusses the ecosystem of invisible organisms that live in and on us. One chapter in particular delves into the microbiota-gut-brain axis, i.e. how our diet affects our gut flora, how our gut flora communicates with our brains, and how this whole ensemble influences our physical and mental health. Now, this topic has already been thoroughly explored by other popular science writers. Fortunately, Robinson considers many other topics and does so in a chatty and conversational tone. Many of these I found both novel and eye-opening.

    For example, I was familiar with one formulation of the hygiene hypothesis: the idea that we have weakened our immune system through the constant indoor use of household cleaners and disinfectants. An interview with immunologist Graham Rook discusses how this hypothesis morphed over time and why he thinks it does not stack up. He instead proposes that our indoor environments are lacking the so-called "old friends" found outdoors that humans evolved in symbiosis with. In their absence, opportunistic bacteria can more easily overwhelm us. Meanwhile, growing up without sufficient exposure to outdoor environments does not properly train our immune system, leading to an increased risk of allergies or even autoimmune diseases as an adult. Another intriguing idea is that microbes impact our behaviour and decisions. Robinson has argued in print that our microbiome might influence our decisions to spend time in certain environments favourable to these microbes, while some of our impulsive behaviours could be driven by "our microbial puppet masters" (p. 98). Or what about the prospects of forensic microbiology? Microbes left behind at a crime scene could be linked to specific places and people, potentially identifying perpetrators, or revealing the cause of death. He admits more research is needed to ground truth these methods, but I would argue that the field of forensic entomology offers a noteworthy precedent, while two forensic botanists have previously written about their use of microscopic plant remains to solve crimes.

    However, other topics fall into the "sure, but" category where I find Robinson is not critical enough and becomes optimistic to the point of being starry-eyed. He is enthusiastic about the idea of getting people outdoors and in contact with health-promoting microbes through e.g. community gardens. Sure, I do not want to downplay the benefits, but he does not mention that urban agriculture has been criticized for in practice not producing much food and being a boutique hobby for well-off urbanites.

    Robinson furthermore visits a farm practising regenerative agriculture which puts soil health, and thus soil microbes, above all else. Sure, conventional agriculture does much environmental harm in the name of feeding people, but he glosses over important details. George Monbiot's book Regenesis critically asked whether this kind of farming has comparable yields and highlighted there is little land left that we can still bring under cultivation. He also does not challenge the farmer who claims to grow "delicious chemical-free vegetables" and use "all-natural matter, soil and compost" (p. 127). This is surprising; as a microbiologist, Robinson understands that food is nothing but (bio)chemistry. I am sure this farmer means he avoids synthetic pesticides, but this kind of sloppy language has the appeal-to-nature fallacy written all over it. One notable gaffe is that Robinson supports the idea that modern food is less nutritious by claiming (p. 126) that today's apples contain 26 times less iron than those in 1940 – only to then in an endnote (p. 252) immediately add that he could not verify this claim. Next to this idea having been questioned, throwing in unverified claims is just bad science writing – the risk of readers missing that asterisk and the book perpetuating potential misinformation is high. No need to add to the noise already out there.

    Fortunately, this seems to be an isolated incident. Robinson thinks more critically when discussing bio-integrated design, i.e. the use of microbes in architecture. Could algae be used to create buildings that can purify the air? Possibly, but "ideally, we should be focusing on reducing the pollution at the source" (p. 156). Many design firms hype the idea of e.g. making bricks out of fungi, but Robinson does not comment on whether such solutions can be scaled up beyond prototypes. Plus, if you mention biodegradable buildings, why overlook traditional practices such as mud or wattle and daub?

    Somewhere on page 165, Robinson jokes about churning out conference posters with new research ideas in the hopes of attracting a rich benefactor. I think this explains some of my criticism: here is someone of boundless enthusiasm constantly throwing out new ideas. Not all of these will necessarily stick, but, arguably, we need creative minds to inspire new directions in research.

    Finally, it is worth mentioning Robinson has a progressive outlook. He discusses issues around social equity: poor people and minorities frequently have less easy access to healthy, biodiverse environments. He highlights where indigenous cultures have held ideas that modern science is now verifying and is especially keen to draw lessons from their holistic worldviews that see humans as an integrated part of nature. Research on the microbiome and its link to human health and well-being resonates with such ideas. His last chapter considers how we can rekindle our relationship with nature through e.g. mindful outdoor activities such as forest bathing – while being exposed to a healthy dose of outdoor microbes.

    Overall then, Invisible Friends is interesting, optimistic, and hopeful, but also speculative in places. Does it succeed in making you reconsider your place in nature? Sure, but readers are advised to keep their critical thinking caps on.
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Jake M. Robinson is a microbial ecologist based in the UK. In 2021, he received a PhD from the University of Sheffield. He is passionate about researching microbes, ecosystems, social equity issues and the connections between them, and at the same time is keen to develop ways to conserve and restore nature. Invisible Friends is his first book.

Popular Science
By: Jake M Robinson(Author)
290 pages, 42 b/w illustrations
An optimistic and hopeful romp through microbiology, Invisible Friends encourages readers to rethink their relationship with nature.
Media reviews

"Can bacteria really be our friends? Thankfully, yes! Invisible Friends provides a fantastic, whimsical, and engaging exploration of our friendship with microbes, a friendship ideally built on caring for each other."
– Justine Dees, PhD, Founder of Joyful Microbe

"With vivid detail, Dr. Robinson has synthesized volumes of international research on microbes – the end result is a concise, reader-friendly page-turner that will be of interest to a full spectrum of readers, from the general public to clinicians to researchers looking for the next big idea! Invisible Friends is just like the microbial world that surrounds us – a companion filled to the brim with marvelous potential!"
– Prof. Susan Prescott, author of The Secret Life of Your Microbiome

"I enjoyed this book very much indeed. It was a fascinating romp through the microbial world and is definitely the sort of book that would make me miss my station. If you are not a microbiologist, you will be astonished at how much microbes affect, regulate and sustain your life, and Robinson's passion and enthusiasm for the world of the very tiny positively glows on every page."
– Dr George McGavin, President of the Dorset Wildlife Trust

"Invisible Friends is beautifully written, and packed with information about the tiny organisms that form the basis of life on Earth. From the microbes in our bodies to those on the International Space Station, Jake Robinson reveals a hidden world that we would be unwise to ignore."
– Rebecca Nesbit, ecologist and author of Tickets for the Ark

"A remarkable book by a writer who really is fascinated about the wonders of the world. This book conveys an important message that our invisible friends rule the world and are vital to the health of our planet including us humans."
– Marja Roslund, Environmental Scientist, Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke)

"Robinson has crafted an immensely accessible and important book. It lifts the lid on the secrets of how our microbial world is so crucial to human and planetary health."
– Prof. John F. Cryan, Principal Investigator in the APC Microbiome Institute, University College Cork

"Invisible Friends tells a wondrous and vital story, how our very being depends upon the unseen, a reality that can help redefine our broken relationship with nature."
– Miles Richardson, Professor of Human Factors and Nature Connectedness, University of Derby

"Jake Robinson is the Gilbert White, the Henry David Thoreau, of the microbiome. His charmingly-written book, a work of science leavened by literary allusion and engaging personal memoir, invites us to dive down through many powers of ten to the invisible level of microbes. Levels, rather, for "microbes" range in size from each other as much as we do from them. Microbes live in us, on us, through us, about us. Bacteria include the green photosynthesis specialists that inhabit the solar panels we call leaves, and are the ultimate source of all our food and oxygen. Each of our cells is an ecosystem of tiny biochemists, whose R and D we borrow to stay alive through every next second. Microbes invented antibiotics for their own protection, megayears before we hijacked them (and abused them) for ours. Micro-organisms are our foes, but our indispensable friends too. Do they even, as Robinson proposes, manipulate us and our behaviour to their, and our, benefit? Not just us but bumblebees and trees, and who knows what else? Do bacteria in clouds make rain, again to their advantage? Such suggestions, music to my ears, may prove controversial but nobody could fail to be intrigued."
– Richard Dawkins

"A fascinating exploration of the possibility of the microscopic world [...] This is not a book written to shock the reader, or to make the reader aghast at the number of microbes on their eyelashes, or in every breath they take. Rather, it is a book to prompt the restoration of the symbiotic relationship between the visible and invisible worlds, as well as the awareness and appreciation of what is contained within our microbiomes."
– Brian McHugh, Climate Thoughts with Brian

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