I, Superorganism: Learning to love your inner ecosystem – Jon Turney ****

I would call this book ‘surprising’, but that doesn’t even begin to do it justice. Turney takes the reader on the ultimate tour of our inner workings. Our bodies harbour trillions of microbes, and the majority of these help us go about our everyday lives.

I, Superorganism introduces the microbiome: the collection of microbes in the human body that forms an ecosystem. Whilst this is a relatively new and unexplored area of biology, Turney sets himself the goal of giving an overview of what the microbiome is, how it affects us, and what future research into it may have in store for us. A substantial task, but one that I think he accomplishes well.

Turney starts by looking in the mirror and exploring what the microbiome means to him. As the chapters progress, he gives more information about how we can examine the microbiome and pick out certain bacteria and their DNA. Evolution of these bacteria and the microbiome as a whole is also detailed, and this leads on to important organs and the microbes within them. Whilst Turney does explore the problems caused by this complex ecosystem, the main focus is on what our microbes do for us. This gives the book a fresh perspective and is something I found particularly interesting.

It should be acknowledged, however, that this is not the perfect book. Approaching the end of some chapters, Turney seems to lose his train of thought and overall structure. He often trails off without giving the reader a definite conclusion. The book is also very research-heavy: both a strength and a weakness. Whilst the current findings on the microbiome give great insight and are extremely interesting, it slows the pace of the book down, making it disengaging at times.

This is a small price to pay, though, with a read this packed with cutting-edge information. The main saving grace is Turney’s sense of humour. It seems to balance out the feeling of less structure, because the whole book feels more like a naturally-flowing conversation. You can sense the anticipation as you read – the book forces you to look ahead and ponder what else our own ecosystems may reveal in future studies. I should also note that the studies Turney includes are up-to-date, giving a great overview of what’s currently happening in this area of microbiology.

Is this book worth reading? Definitely. Whether you’re a keen biologist or haven’t even heard of the microbiome before (as I hadn’t), you’ll get something out of it. There’s even something for the philosophers. Turney asks the reader some compelling questions – are microbes us or are they separate from us? Do new ways of looking mean we see something differently or see a different thing? It’s a fairly accessible read too – mostly A level biology knowledge is covered in depth and lots of complex concepts are simplified for the purpose of explaining a research study, for example. This makes it easy to grasp whilst still exploring some complicated theories.

The quote that Turney uses at the start of the book is one by Theodor Rosebury: “with increasing knowledge, revulsion sometimes yields to fascination”. This is very apt. I started the book with some trepidation, as I had never come across this field of research before. That trepidation quickly gave way to wonder. I, Superorganism did indeed teach me to love my inner ecosystem.

 

I, Superorganism: Learning to love your inner ecosystem - Jon Turney - Icon Books 2015

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