It’s dusk in the city.
Between towering grey blocks there is a tiny rat, darting from pillar to post, constantly looking for the next place to hide from the big scary world out there. Crawling with predators and enemies, and probably a few humans who are just plain scared of her (and she’s had enough of the screams). As she lies in the shadow, heart racing, whiskers twitching, she catches the scent of something she recognizes in the air. Pungent and unmistakable.
The scent surrounds her, she fills her lungs with it. And then her body softens. The more she inhales, the more she softens. She is captivated. Drunk on fumes she follows the smell. No longer darting for fear, she twists and turns through alleyways, lead by her nose and a longing she doesn’t fully understand.
Not a tale of an unrequited inter-species love affair, but a fact of life. A phenomenon we’re only beginning to understand. The work of the single-celled parasite called Toxoplasma gondii. Hidden from sight in the world we inhabit, it infects a wide range of mammals, yet can only complete its life cycle in the digestive system of a cat. Driven by the same evolutional desires as us all, the parasite does anything it can to reproduce, including this mind-bending act of brain control. After finding itself in the vessel of a rat, Toxo gets inside the brain, and forms cysts that mess around with substance release. Normally, understandably, a rat is born with the innate fear of the scent of a cat, even if it has never even encountered one. A rat brain infected with Toxo looses this instinctive reaction and actually interprets the scent of a cat in something similar to sexual attraction. A feisty love-drunk rat, taking its chances approaching the neighbourhood cat, will almost surely end in the same way every time. No, not an exchange of numbers, but untimely death, and the achievement of Toxo – a free ride into a cat gut, and reproductive success!
The debut novel by one of my favourite science writers, Ed Yong, explores the wonderful world of microbes. “I Contain Multitudes; The microbes within us and a grander view of life” tells the story of the mind-binding abilities of Toxo and its microscopic counterparts, whose story is often left untold in our oversized world. Beyond the surface of everything we know, is a whole other world. A busy, crowded, bustling activity of processes that are controlling so much more than we are aware. Earning infamy through disease and pathogens – the world of the microbes has often been shunned and feared, but Yong opens up the incredible intricacy and its unappreciated importance.
I’m only about half way through, and I already can’t recommend this book enough. Ed Yong is an incredible science writer, and this is an incredible tale to tell.
I’m sat devouring it over a Saturday afternoon brew in my local café. The scent of coffee never keeps me away from anywhere very long.
Hold on a minute…
*Googles coffee loving microbes*