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Creepy Crawlies

Never Home Alone by Rob Dunn is  a work of popular science non-fiction that is not for the faint of heart. In this book, we learn about all of the critters that live alone side us in our very homes. We also learn whether there is a purpose for their existence and what the consequences may be for us if they did not exist.

I joke with people that I thought bacteria were mythological creatures until I married a microbiologist who was able to set me straight. Of course, I knew they existed, but I liked to live as if they did not.  A nonchalant stance toward microbes combined with my husbands practical approach, results in me  having a pretty tough stomach as far as learning and knowing about the microbial life in our midst. I have head knowledge that the vast majority of microbial life benefits the human race and so I am able to accept this. But, by all means, do not read this book if you are freaked out by terms like biofilm, bacteria, gut microbiome, fecal transplant, fungus, toxoplasmosis, etc.

If you can get past all of that, you are in for a treat -- somewhat of an educational wake up call for how we typically operate.

We learn with this book that there are heat loving bacteria first cultured only in hot springs living in most of our water heaters -- and also coming in contact with us through our shower heads. While that may cause you to feel unsettled, this particular bacterium was used to develop modern PCR techniques without which is used for a variety of laboratory procedures including DNA tests and diagnoses for genetic disorders. The bacteria are helpful.

We also learn that the pests we are most repelled by are not the ones we should be concerned about. For instance, cockroaches do not make people sick. They are an allergen for some people, but that is the extent of it. They do not carry disease. Same with spiders. Spiders are nearly always our allies, keeping more harmful pests at bay such as flies and mosquitoes, both of which are known to cause disease. The author even advocated for deliberately placing social spiders in restaurants and public markets for sanitation purposes.

Much of the material presented here runs counter to instinct, which is why it is an important to be aware of its contents. It is important to remember that clean never means sterile. We are not able to wash off all bacteria from our hands with soap and water -- and antibacterial soap is actually less effective than regular soap. The purpose of hand washing is to wash of recently-squired bacteria, not to strip our hands of their natural flora. In fact, the riskiest places for disease and infection is where there is no competition, which is why hospitals are so prone to outbreaks of this nature -- there is no bacterial biodiversity. It is also important to know that pesticides make cockroaches thrive, and that we are as likely to be sick from the bacteria we lack as from the bacteria or parasites we have. In fact, out of all the bacteria, viruses, and protists in our homes, only 100 species are known to cause infectious illnesses (there are 80,000 types of bacteria alone).

There is no need to go to the ends of the earth -- rainforest, hot spring, Antarctica, desert, or tundra to find unique species with unknown potential to assist with technological advances. These species exist in our homes -- bacteria, arthropods, spiders and others that may not be known to science. Even if they are known, they have not been studied sufficiently. The author made a great point that, when we see a critter in our home, we never assume it is unique or helpful. Instead, we only consider how we can get rid of it. Meanwhile, scientists have not come close to cataloging all of the species of arthropods in our homes, and one of them harbors a bacterium that has now been shown to be able to break down lignin, amounting to a huge advancement in bio-remediation.

Most people reading these things will feel disgust, but the author attempted to convey a sense of awe at the unseen world around us. It worked for me.

For anyone keeping track:
-I found this book at the Marion Public Library via my method of staring at the new non-fiction books until something strikes me
-This book was read as part of my two-person book club


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