CA Mushrooms
CA Mushrooms

Book Review

The Amoeba in the Room

By Nicholas P. Money
2014, Oxford University Press
ISBN: 978-0-19-994131-5
240 pages; hardcover
5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches; $24.95

“Every day of our lives, everywhere we go, we are filled with and immersed in a soup of invisible microbes. A hot shower and a dental scrub with an electric toothbrush change none of these fundamentals.” Microbes are inescapable on the planet; they run our lives, indeed run the planet. Yet, few humans ever consider these ubiquitous creatures. Which is why it’s so surprising—and frustrating—to mycologist Nik Money (a distinguished professor at Miami University in Ohio) that our educational opportunities to learn about them (be it biology classes in high school or college) fail so badly, relegating microbiology to little more than a passing glance. Money throws open the window and invites us, no insists, we gaze deeply and marvel at these amazing organisms.  

Money begins his latest foray into the world of the microscopic “with an audacious claim: animals and plants are the least part of life.” A cup of seawater contains 100 million cells, which are preyed upon by billions of viruses. Fifty million tons of fungal spores are released into the atmosphere every year. And the human gut is home to somewhere between 500 and 1,000 species of bacteria. The more we learn about microbial biodiversity, the clearer it becomes that the vast majority of life has long gone unseen, and unobserved. The flowering of microbial science is revolutionizing biology and medicine in ways unimagined only a few years ago, and is inspiring a new view of what it means to be alive.  

In The Amoeba in the Room, Nicholas Money explores the extraordinary breadth of the microbial world and the vast swathes of biological diversity that can be detected only using molecular methods. Although biologists have achieved a remarkable level of understanding about the way multicellular organisms operate, Money shows that most people continue to ignore the fact that most of life isn’t classified as either plant or animal. Significant discoveries about the composition of the biosphere are making it clear that the sciences have failed to comprehend the full spectrum of life on earth, which is far more diverse than previously imagined. Many groups unfamiliar to most of us share the limelight: diatoms, algae, extremophilic bacteria and Archaea. But keep in mind that Money is a mycologist, so (as you’d expect) the fungi—“given their own kingdom in 1969, a breakthrough of comparable scientific importance to the moon landing in July of the same year”— are stars of this show too. Money is also renowned as a mycological historian (Mr. Bloomfield’s Orchard and Triumph of the Fungi are two of my favorites), so many researchers that pioneered the field factor in: Micheli, de Bary, Darwin, even Haeckel.  

Money’s engaging work considers microbial diversity in all its forms, exploring environments from the backyard pond to the ocean floor to the “mobile ecosystem” of our own bodies (I found this section of the book most fascinating).  

“Descartes wrote about thinking as proof of the individual’s existence, and propagated the ancient belief in our supernatural distinction from the rest of life on earth. Four hundred years later, mainstream philosophy clings to the illusion of human magnificence. Biology has been saying something very different recently; that we embrace the irrational if we imagine that we exist as anything more, or anything less, than complicated mixtures of cultivated microorganisms … [Your beginning] in the amniotic sac is a coddled preparation for the shock of the first encounter with microbes outside the womb. The fetal immune defenses are tutored for this surprise by a subset of the mother’s antibodies that cross the placenta. Gestation shares many of the features of parasitic infection, with the placenta secreting molecules that camouflage the fetal tissues from maternal defenses that might result otherwise in spontaneous abortion. The fetus produces regulatory immune cells that tolerate, rather than attack, the proteins of its developing organs and the larger foreign body of its mother. Once outside, the infant immune system hastens to create a more detailed microbial inventory of its surroundings, with the aid of antibodies delivered in breast milk, categorizing harmful and helpful bacteria.”

The news headlines make it clear just how imperative it is that we begin to understand the natural world around us: Global Climate Change, epidemic and pandemic human diseases, droughts, crop failures due to pests, invasive species, rampant species extinction… the dire list goes on. A revitalized vision of life emerges from Money’s lively narrative of the lowly, one in which we are challenged to reconsider our existence in proper relationship to the single-celled protists, bacteria, and viruses that constitute most of life on earth. Proposing a radical reformulation of biology education and research in the life sciences, The Amoeba in the Room is a compelling romp through the least visible and yet most prodigiously magnificent aspects of life on earth. For as Money sums up: “If the life in my pond and my colon are beyond comprehension, what hope do we have of understanding how the open ocean works?”

— Review by Britt Bunyard
— Originally published in Fungi