Review of ‘Invisible Friends- How Microbes Shape Our Lives and the World Around Us’ by Jake M. Robinson

‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Robinson opens his text by challenging his reader to be aware of the invisible world and to understand its long connection and relationship with humans. Microorganisms have existed on planet Earth for billions of years and will likely continue to do so long after humanity has been and gone. Many fascinating phenomena in our world often go unnoticed. The incredible diversity of the microscopic realm around us holds many secrets. He urges us to appreciate and wonder at an invisible world of microbes- a world where humans are not the dominant life form, but instead the short terms guests. With each human having a microbiome with an estimated 39 trillion microbial cells, we could, as Robinson suggests, describe ourselves as ‘walking ecosystems.’ He repeats that Microbes are essential features of our ecosystems, health, social structures, behaviour, food systems and cultures. And quotes Louis Pasteur when he echoes, ‘The role of the infinitely small in nature is infinitely great.’

This book is a fascinating exploration of the possibility of the microscopic world: from outlining the last microbiota-gut-brain axis research; to exploring forensic microbiology in potentially replacing if not complementing DNA in the legal and policing worlds; to describing microbiome-inspired green infrastructure; and finally turning attention to the level of connectedness that we need with nature.

We are all in this together. We are all connected through our invisible friends.

A loss of immunity?

Unfortunately, when we don’t have the collectivism mindset and instead forge ahead with an individualist mindset, we run the risk of not seeing what we have lost until it is too late. Robinson explores the hypothesis of microbes as ‘old friends’, without which, we run the risk of putting ourselves in danger. ‘It is the removal of natural biodiversity from our lives and the lack of interaction between ourselves and the microbes we co-evolved with that causes immune-system issues and inflammatory diseases like allergies.’ He acknowledges and warns against the dangers of misuse of antibiotics in treatment when immune systems are weakened and cautions that this could herald the rise of resistant strains. ‘Nowadays, many people’s immune systems seem to be weakening, and we turn to antibiotics for help.’ Robinson explores the environment factor and uses the ‘Glasgow Effect’ as supporting evidence of the social inequity in exposure to microbes. Researchers found a disparity of 18 years in life expectancy between two neighbouring regions of the city and considered a range of explanations. ‘Scientists have put together various hypotheses forward to explain this disparity, including land contamination by toxins, higher derelict land levels and poor housing quality and social support. All these phenomena could potentially drive inequities in exposure to microbes.’ With ‘nature prescriptions’ on the rise in the UK, an equal exposure and access to green space and ‘forest-bathing’, may be an under-researched and under-used strategy to advance health. ‘The opportunity to ‘bathe’ in friendly microbes and plant chemicals should be available to all.’

Sadly, in the UK, what most of do ‘bathe’ in, when we go to the coasts, is untreated sewage. Clear information is now in the public domain about the water industry and the lack of action from Government bodies to remedy the amount of sewage that is polluting the waterways around the UK. As Robinson identifies, ‘Another important source of antibiotic-resistance genes in our landscapes is sewage.’ He urges us to picture- worryingly not ‘imagine’- the current state of superbugs and the dangers thereof. ‘Just imagine the indomitable armada of antibiotic-resistant bacteria sailing in their fleets in unfathomable numbers through the pipes and into the rivers and seas when raw human sewage is discharged. This is the reality of the situation in the UK.’

‘We’re living in a microbial world.’

Robinson explores in a detailed manner how the psychobiotic revolution has happened and suggests that more research into microbe interactions may impact and alleviate suffering from diseases such as MS. He outlines the numerous pathways linking gut microbes to the brain and suggests that ‘the chemicals produced by microbes are critical players in gut-brain communication.’ A better understanding of this communication may have an impact on human behaviour and learning, as well as implications for treatment. ‘It has been shown that people with MS are more likely to have dysbiotic gut microbiomes, including a reduced number of microbial species, than control groups…

Continuing to study gut microbe interactions provides the hope of understanding more about how MS works- and, dare I say, with crossed fingers and toes, how it could potentially be alleviated.’

On a more philosophical note, Robinson also questions whether microbes could play a part in the debate surrounding human will. Could our microbes affect our perceptions, action and intuition by regulating our impulses? Should we consider this when debating the notions of free will and determinism? It is also worth considering that as humans we have approximately 30 trillion human cells balanced against approximately 39 trillion microbial cells- therefore, what does this relationship mean for an understanding of what it means to be human itself?

A world without microbes

Although Robinson doesn’t like the terms ‘good’ and ‘bad’ as he accepts that even pathogens are part of a normal functioning ecosystem, he takes the time to warn that biodiversity loss, especially that of tree-felling, could have dramatic impacts on our environment. Indeed, the ongoing degradation of ecosystems means that we are living in good times for ‘bad’ microbes, and bad times for ‘good’ microbes. Robinson outlines the vital importance and role that microbes have in our ecosystems. Microbes are the glue that holds our ecosystems together. He imagines a powerful vision of the loss of microbes, with the rapid domino effect that this would have. If microbes were wiped out, plants would no longer draw in vital nutrients and convert them into useful chemicals. They would rapidly lose all capacity to produce energy via photosynthesis, and would swiftly die. All other organisms that depend on plants to survive would soon be cursed with the same fate.

A cultural transformation.

Robinson urges that a cultural transformation is needed in how humans view, understand and relate to the microbial world. He suggests that the possibilities to learn from and work with this world would be hugely advantageous. He enthusiastically describes bioreceptive wall panels, green infrastructure and algae-powered buildings, as in Hamburg, Germany, as only the starting point of what a positive symbiotic relationship could mean. With air pollution becoming a rising concern in most countries and cities, Robinson suggests that a template mitigation method may already exist, ‘to reduce the impacts of city air pollution, the algae powered breathing pavilions produce breathable oxygen whilst purifying the local air.’ Robinson argues thatecological policies and behaviours could be better adapted, once we acknowledge that we live in an interrelated world. But once we acknowledge that we are essentially walking communities exchanging invisible life-forms with our environments, we can use ecological principles to help guide our social policy and behaviour.

He urges ‘that all forms of life-both the seen and the unseen-are in some way connected, ecologically, socially and evolutionarily.’ With this profound shift in mindset from humans, powerful methods of optimising restoration and regeneration policies can be implemented, which would have beneficial impact on humans. From a microbiome perspective, we need to understand how to optimise restoration strategies so that nature can do its thing and heal us. He quotes the doyenne of nature relationships, Robin Wall Kimmerer, to support his argument of a healthy positive relationship with nature. ‘We restore the land, and the land restores us.’

Shifts in architecture, restoration and lower levels of air pollution are only the start. Robinson also conjectures about a future where forensic microbiology may help a criminal justice system in identification of criminal behaviour. He reminds us of Locard’s exchange principle when he writes ‘We leave swathes of microbes behind on objects and surfaces’ and suggests that a better understanding of microbes may eventually replace DNA evidence. Each of us humanoids may be uniquely identified based on the microbial communities living in and on our bodies- our microbial ‘fingerprints’.

We live in an interrelated 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. ‘Simply taking a mindful moment to think about this web of interconnectivity can be humbling, and acknowledging its existence and power can be transformative. Ultimately, all the nature you can see intimately depends on all the nature you can’t see.’

Understanding our connectedness with the invisible world can remind us to tread gently and change our behaviour, so that the smallest creatures on the planet can continue to thrive. We are visitors in their world. As Robinson concludes, we cannot do without them.

‘Microbes influence every corner of the world and every second of our lives.’


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