The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health
David R. Montgomery, Anne Biklé
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A riveting exploration of how microbes are transforming the way we see nature and ourselves―and could revolutionize agriculture and medicine.
Prepare to set aside what you think you know about yourself and microbes. Good health―for people and for plants―depends on Earth’s smallest creatures. The Hidden Half of Nature tells the story of our tangled relationship with microbes and their potential to revolutionize agriculture and medicine, from garden to gut.
When David R. Montgomery and Anne Biklé decide to restore life into their barren yard by creating a garden, dead dirt threatens their dream. As a cure, they feed their soil a steady diet of organic matter. The results impress them. In short order, the much-maligned microbes transform their bleak yard into a flourishing Eden. Beneath their feet, beneficial microbes and plant roots continuously exchange a vast array of essential compounds. The authors soon learn that this miniaturized commerce is central to botanical life’s master strategy for defense and health.
They are abruptly plunged further into investigating microbes when Biklé is diagnosed with cancer. Here, they discover an unsettling truth. An armada of bacteria (our microbiome) sails the seas of our gut, enabling our immune system to sort microbial friends from foes. But when our gut microbiome goes awry, our health can go with it. The authors also discover startling insights into the similarities between plant roots and the human gut. We are not what we eat. We are all―for better or worse―the product of what our microbes eat.
This leads to a radical reconceptualization of our relationship to the natural world: by cultivating beneficial microbes, we can rebuild soil fertility and help turn back the modern plague of chronic diseases. The Hidden Half of Nature reveals how to transform agriculture and medicine―by merging the mind of an ecologist with the care of a gardener and the skill of a doctor.
caught up with or exceeded the conventional plots by the third year. How did this work? A greater amount of soil life increased the nitrogen reservoir available to plants. Consider, for example, how nematodes that eat soil bacteria excrete nitrogen-rich waste back into the soil, thereby turning bacterial biomass into plant-available nitrogen—organic fertilizer. It seems as though Sir Albert Howard was on the right track after all. A long-term agricultural experiment established in Switzerland
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detail of its minuscule brain stuck on the head of a pin. Of course, his bourgeois neighbors thought him crazy. But Leeuwenhoek didn’t care; he was absorbed in exploring miniature worlds. And he did not advertise his astounding discoveries, either—they were for his entertainment alone. Eventually, Leeuwenhoek let an acquaintance who was a correspondent with London’s Royal Society peer through his microscopes. The experience astounded the worldly, well-educated visitor. The best hand lenses of
clear that something had gone horribly wrong. A girl in Idaho who had received the vaccine came down with polio and died. About a dozen similar cases were reported among children who lived up and down the West Coast. Jonas Salk went from hero to villain in a matter of days. Chief among his critics was another researcher, Albert Sabin. The two had met when Salk first arrived in Pittsburgh. The inner circle of polio researchers was small, and Sabin, who considered the junior Salk an inexperienced
garden—engages this instinct in ways that few other things do. Cultivating plants (and animals) for food, comfort, aesthetics, and pleasure is as old as civilization itself. But our natural inclination to focus on the nature we can see has led us to overlook the importance of the half we can’t. Even the early naturalists neglected microbes during the heyday of taxonomy. For how could something so small do anything of much importance? The hidden half of nature is our name for the abundant and