Exploring The Species Near Us

May 23, 2019

By Mary Chitty, Library Director and Taxonomist, Cambridge Innovation Institute.

May 23, 2019 | Rob Dunn, Professor of Applied Ecology, North Carolina State University has written an engaging and absorbing account of his adventures in ecology, starting with field work in the remote rain forests of Costa Rica. Eventually he learned he could discover closer to home—and help students identify—previously unknown bacteria and insects in houses, including those living in showerheads and extremophiles living in freezers and ovens.

    Never Home Alone: From Microbes to Millipedes, Camel Crickets, and Honeybees, the Natural History of Where We Live. By Rob Dunn, Basic Books 2018

Many of these bacteria are unculturable and challenging to study, but with faster and cheaper DNA sequencing are now identifiable. Dunn notes that fewer than 100 species of viruses, bacteria, and Protista cause nearly all infectious diseases, while the rest are not pathogenic. Many are beneficial including gut bacteria that aid digestion and skin bacteria that can fight off pathogens.

Dunn makes a convincing, inspiring (and enjoyable) case for the value of biodiversity, and appreciation of the underrecognized and understudied value of beneficial bacteria, fungi and viruses. Growing attention to microbiomes, human and otherwise is starting to change this, but much remains to be learned. We are increasing recognizing that trying to eradicate all "pests" and kill microbes leads to antibiotic resistant superbugs, and populations with more allergies and asthma.

Dunn captures both a wonderful sense of scientific exploration and new frontiers while drawing attention to the possibility of new discoveries so near at hand they tend to be ignored. He looks for new antibiotics in insects and crustaceans, and spiders as inspirations for 3D printing, or industrial lessons from spider silk. New yeasts from wasps are now used to produce a beer much faster than other yeasts.

Dunn gives three reasons why so little is happening in biodiversity research. First, people ignore species near us. Second, though ecologists and evolutionary biologists talk about the "potential economic value" of species, they assume someone else will do that work. Third, most efforts to find new uses for species have been random and one-by-one. Looking in rain forests for cancer drugs one-by-one is expensive—and inefficient. We also need to save species so that when we finally figure out what they are useful for, they will still be around.

A chapter on the flavors of biodiversity explores the differences in taste of sourdough bread or kimchi influenced by the skin microbiomes of bakers or cooks. Perhaps one of the most important lessons of this book is that we still have a lot to learn about and from the enormous variety of living things we live among. We need to learn more about them and how to co-exist, for the good of ourselves and our future.