We live in a time of unprecedented scientific knowledge about the origins of life on Earth. But if we want to grasp the big picture, we have to start small – very small. That's because the real heroes of the story of life on Earth are microbes, the tiny living organisms we cannot see with the naked eye. Microbes were Earth's first lifeforms, early anaerobic inhabitants that created the air we breathe. Today they live, invisible and seemingly invincible, in every corner of the planet, from Yellowstone's scalding hot springs to Antarctic mountaintops to inside our very bodies – more than a hundred trillion of them. Don't be alarmed though: many microbes are allies in achieving our – to say nothing of our planet's – health.
In Planet of Microbes, Ted Anton takes readers through the most recent discoveries about microbes, revealing their unexpected potential to reshape the future of the planet. For years, we knew little about these invisible invaders, considering them as little more than our enemies in our fight against infectious disease. But the more we learn about microbes, the more it's become clear that our very lives depend on them. They may also hold the answers to some of science's most pressing problems, including how to combat a warming planet, clean up the environment, and help the body fight off a wide variety of diseases. Anton has spent years interviewing and working with the determined scientists who hope to harness the work of microbes, and he breaks down the science while also sharing incredible behind-the-scenes stories of the research taking place everywhere from microbreweries to Mars.
The world's tiniest organisms were here more than three billion years before us. We live in their world, and Planet of Microbes, at last, gives these unsung heroes the recognition they deserve.
"Anton cleverly choreographs coverage of the personalities of scientists, their research and staggering findings in sync with the astounding opportunism and abilities of the microscopic life forms that fascinate them."
"Earth’s microbial hordes are its dominant life form. A realm that spans the mammalian gut, the ocean floor and the International Space Station is a rich one, and discoveries in it continue to rattle and revivify biology. Anton’s captivating narrative follows the field’s evolution through key findings in symbiosis, archaea and the microbiome by inspired scientists such as Lynn Margulis, Carl Woese, Margaret McFall-Ngai, and Elaine Hsiao. Anton dips, too, into how the findings are influencing diet, agriculture, medicine and environmental sustainability."
"Planet of Microbes is a fascinating journey through one of our least visible and most influential landscapes. Anton makes it an adventure as well, full of all the quirks and wonderful unexpectedness of good science – and good science writing."
– Deborah Blum, author of The Poisoner’s Handbook
"The story of microbes comes to life through vignettes about the eccentric and inquisitive scientists who study them. Anton takes the reader on a romping tour of microbial research, from astrobiology to zoology, and leaves us with a new respect for these tiny creatures."
– Brooke Borel, author of Infested: How the Bed Bug Infiltrated Our Bedrooms and Took Over the World
"Anton shines in his detailing of research that has unveiled the reach and weight of microbes and the chemistry and geology of the ancient Earth."
– Kirkus Reviews
Part One. Out of the Air: Searching for Life’s Origin
Chapter 1. Lightning in the Lab
Chapter 2. The Instigator
Chapter 3. In the Hot Vents with RNA
Chapter 4. Return of the Ancient Ones
Chapter 5. Shooting Stars
Part Two. Turning the Tide: Seeking Better Health
Chapter 6. Killer Membranes: The Labs Where Life Is Made
Chapter 7. Relics of the Deep: Future from the Past
Chapter 8. In the Garden: Microbes, Power, and Health
Chapter 9. Lost City: At the Alkaline Seeps
Chapter 10. Moonlight: Symbiosis, the Squid, and a New Science
Part Three: Microbes and Money: A Sustainable Future
Chapter 11. The Universe Within. A New Microbial Medicine
Chapter 12. Martian Chronicles
Chapter 13. Sustainability. Toward a Microbe Economy
Chapter 14. A River Runs Through It: The Hope and Hype of Microbes
What unites deep subterranean caves, hydrothermal vents in the deep sea, our guts, cloud formation, geochemical processes, and astrobiology (the search for life beyond our planet) to name but a few things? Microbes. The tiny, single-celled organisms that we cannot see with the naked eye are everywhere. With Planet of Microbes, Ted Anton makes the point that this world is really theirs, and takes the reader on a tour of the rapid increase in our understanding of their importance, focusing on three major subjects.
First is our long-running quest to understand the origins of life and the question if life exists elsewhere. Anton talks us through the original 1952 Miller-Urey experiment (which showed how complex organic chemicals can be spontaneously formed from simpler inorganic compounds), the controversial figure of Lynn Margulis (whose intellectual heritage includes the theory of endosymbiosis, explaining how complex eukaryotic cells arose from simple prokaryotic cells, see also Symbiogenesis: A New Principle of Evolution), the role of RNA (the single-strand partner of DNA) in early life, the discovery of a completely new kingdom of life, the Archaea, that exist next to bacteria and everything else and can live in very inhospitable environments. This work very much ties in with astrobiology and the search for water and microbial life beyond Earth, including probes send to comets (most recently the Rosetta probe Philae landing on the Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet) and moons in our solar system, the Rovers trundling around on Mars, and the study of comets found on Earth.
The second big topic Anton explores is that of the human microbiome, the community of microbes that lives in and on us. The idea that microbes are not just dangerous pathogens that make us ill but are also necessary allies for our health and well-being has exploded into the popular consciousness in recent years. There have been at least four big pop-science books on the topic in the last three years: Collen's 10% Human, DeSalle & Perkins's Welcome to the Microbiome, Dietert's The Human Superorganism, and Yong's I Contain Multitudes. It seems our microbiome can influence our emotions, physical health and behaviour, and overuse of antibiotics is being linked to a rise in obesity, auto-immune diseases, diabetes and psychological disorders (see also Blaser's Missing Microbes). This is a rapidly developing field where there is as much hype as hypothesis. Health fads and snake oil salesmen abound, and in this context Jonathan Eisen's blog The Tree of Life and his warning of microbiomania are very apt.
The third topic Anton covers is the fundamental roles of microbes in the functioning of our planet, whether in geochemistry, climate, renewing and cleaning soil, or breaking down waste. Synthetic biology as a field has exploded, and there has been a veritable gold rush for commercial applications. Microbes could soon help us create renewable energy, break down chemical and radioactive waste (and maybe even plastic), clean up wastewater, and change the face of agriculture. Especially the many extremophiles (which includes some of the aforementioned Archaea living in inhospitable environments) can snack on pretty much anything.
All this sounds like an awful lot of ground to cover. Anton acknowledges some 150 scientists and researchers whose brains he has picked over the years. Looking at the notes, some of his interviews date back to 1999, though the majority of material seems to have been gathered in the last four years. As a consequence, Planet of Microbes is a high-octane story of discovery. Other than the classic experiments and theories regarding the origins of life, many topics are not treated in any great depth. That the microbiome affects our health is only mentioned rather than explained in detail, so I feel confident that I can pick up some of the aforementioned books and learn a great deal more. Instead, Anton touches on topics, before quickly introducing the next ground-breaking discovery in another field. If the pace sounds frantic, in a way it reflects the incredibly rapid expansion of our knowledge in these fields.
The book is slightly marred by grammatical errors, especially in the first part of the book. You come across sentences where it seems the author wrote down two versions of a sentence and then forgot to delete one of his options, resulting in awkward constructions such as "Ancient cyanobacteria that the made the pungent blue-green algae of swamps and ponds [...] (p. 18)". The other two parts of the book seem to have been proof-read more thoroughly, though some noticable repetition creeps in in the last few chapters. What the book does have, which I like, is an appendix with two timelines of major discoveries, one dedicated to the results of the various space probes. Readers of Planet of Microbes would benefit from basic background knowledge of biology, as there are no illustrations or a glossary, and Anton defines few things explicitly. Overall, the book provides a very pleasant mix of personal portrayal of the sometimes eccentric researchers in these fields and the surprising discoveries they have made. Its fast-paced narrative succeeded in sucking me in, and I dare say it makes for a microbiological page-turner.
Ted Anton is professor of English at DePaul University. He is the author, most recently, of The Longevity Seekers and has written for Chicago magazine, the Chicago Tribune, and Publishers Weekly.