Hidden Half of Nature: Intelligent, Invisible Life In Us and On Us

Microorganisms have always been an invisible part of life. But now that scientists are uncovering how they can help us address some of the world’s most pressing problems, a revolution for life and health is emerging. In The Hidden Half of Nature (W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2015), authors David R. Montgomery and Anne Biklé explore humanity’s relationship with microbes across science and nature by recognizing the essential roles they play in our lives.

This book recognizes the abundance and resilience of microbes, and by drawing on the specialized work of scientists, doctors, gardeners and more, it uncovers an unseen world that works for us, from inside of us. Read on to discover this new perspective on how embracing microbes could be the key to healing our world, from promoting soil fertility to fighting chronic disease.
Following is an excerpt from The Hidden Half of Nature.

See David Montgomery and Anne Biklé speak about their work at the 2021 Bioneers Conference.

The latest revelations about microorganisms show that we are not who we thought we were. This was brought into sharp relief a few years ago when a large consortium of scientists reported their findings in the journals Science and Nature. An unfathomably vast array of invisible life—bacteria, protists, archaea, and fungi—thrives on us and in us, as do innumerable viruses (which are not considered alive). Their cells outnumber our own cells by at least three to one, and many say ten to one, yet we are only beginning to learn what they do for us. And our planet—like the bodies of plants, animals, and people—is literally covered, inside and out, with microorganisms. Not only are they abundant, they’re robust, able to withstand the most extreme conditions the planet can offer.

The more we looked into these recent discoveries, the more we were intrigued by the parallel roles of microbes in maintaining the health of plants and people. And we learned the new name for microbes that live on us and in us—the human microbiome. We began to see how microbes could help restore soil fertility and counter the plague of modern chronic diseases. We had stumbled upon a whole new way of seeing nature.

In this book we tell the story of our journey uncovering and connecting ideas and insights about the emerging revolution swirling around nature’s hidden half. We lean on, draw from, and champion the work of dozens of scientists, farmers, gardeners, doctors, journalists, and authors. It is a story that explores humanity’s relationship with microbes. We are now realizing that microbes, long seen as invisible scourges, can help address some of the most pressing problems facing us today.

This new view of microbes is shocking—they are essential parts of us and plants, and always have been. Such a view points to an astounding potential for promising new practices in agriculture and medicine. Think animal husbandry or gardening on a microscopic scale. By cultivating beneficial soil microorganisms on farms and in gardens, we can ward off pests and boost harvests. And in medicine, research on the microbial ecology of the human body is driving new therapies and treatments. A few decades ago such ideas would have sounded as preposterous as invisible life itself did a few centuries before that. The emerging science of a microbial basis for health directly challenges the wisdom of indiscriminate campaigns against microbes in agricultural soils and our own bodies. Some are our secret silent partners.

There is no doubt that studying the natural world in neatly compartmentalized subjects lets us grasp the otherwise incomprehensible complexity of the whole. Specialization has allowed scientists to chalk up spectacular successes and discoveries. This is the standard approach in seeking cures and treatments for what ails crops and people. But this limited vantage point conceals broad connections fundamental to the microscopic world and our own.

It doesn’t help that profound changes have occurred in the way scientists write about and communicate their scientific discoveries. Pick up a copy of Science or Nature from a century ago, and the average reader can understand what the authors of pretty much any article are talking about. Not so today. Modern scientific jargon is, for the most part, dumbfoundingly mind-numbing. Not to pick on any particular research group or journal, but in researching this book, we often found ourselves wading through sentences like this: Recognition of peptidoglycan by NOD1 in IECs elicits production of CCL20 and b-defensin 3 that direct the recruitment of B cells to LTi-dendritic-cell clusters in cryptopatches to induce the expression of sIgA. 

Unintelligible to most, this is actually an example of succinct scientific writing—the kind that advisors and editors encourage, and sometimes insist on. It packs a page into a sentence. But who, other than technical specialists in that field, can comprehend its meaning? In simpler terms this phrase says that certain intestinal cells recognize particular types of bacteria, and that this bacterial recognition causes immune cells to release substances critical to health. Of course, it conveys more details, like the name of the particular molecules and immune cells involved. But sometimes clarity on the specifics can obscure larger messages. And the more we delved into microbiome science, the clearer it became that we all need to know far more about how microbial ecology affects our well-being and our environment.

Researchers in microbiology and medicine are uncovering the intricate symbiotic relationships that exist between people and the microbes living in and on our bodies. Bacterial cells live alongside the cells lining our gut, where, deep within our bowels, they teach and train immune cells to sort friend from foe. Likewise, soil ecologists have made strikingly similar discoveries about the effects of soil life on plant health. Bacterial communities inside of and around plant roots help sound the alarm and man the barricades when pathogens storm the botanical gates.

As it turns out, the vast majority of bacteria in the soil and in our bodies benefit us. And throughout the history of life on land, microbes repeatedly deconstructed every piece of organic matter on the planet—leaves, branches, and bones—fashioning new life from the dead. Yet our relationship with the hidden half of nature remains modeled on killing it, rather than understanding and fostering its beneficial aspects. In waging war against microbes for the last century, we’ve managed to unwittingly chisel away much of the foundation on which we stand.

And while impressive and transformative new products and microbial therapies are on the horizon for both agriculture and medicine, there is a profoundly simple reason we should care about the hidden half of nature. It is a part of us, not apart from us. Microbes drive our health from inside our bodies. Their metabolic by-products form essential cogs of our biology. And the tiniest creatures on Earth forged long-running partnerships with all multicellular life in the evolutionary fires of deep time. All around us they literally run the world, from extracting nutrients plants need from rocks, to catalyzing the global carbon and nitrogen cycles that keep the wheel of life turning.

It’s time to recognize the essential roles microbes play in our lives. They shaped our past and how we treat them will shape our future in ways we are only beginning to understand. For we will never escape our microbial cradle. Nature’s hidden half is as deeply embedded in us as we are in her.

Excerpted from The Hidden Half of Nature by David R. Montgomery and Anne Biklé. Copyright © 2016 by David R. Montgomery and Anne Biklé. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

David Montgomery and Anne Biklé will speak about their work at the 2021 Bioneers Conference.

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