Review: “Missing Microbes” by Martin J. Blaser

Thumbs up for Missing Microbes: How the Overuse of Antibiotics Is Fueling Our Modern Plagues by Martin J. Blaser. Science.

Oh look! Another book that makes intelligent decision-making even more difficult! You probably should not read this if you’re easily freaked out by the end of the world. I am somewhat immune (pun intended) to being freaked out by certain things, since I’ll never have children: I will not, for example, have to decide whether treating my six-month-year old with antibiotics for a painful ear infection is worth the risk of permanently throwing their microbiome out of whack, which may lead to a host of other difficulties down the road. My own microbiome is, I’m sure, thoroughly out of whack already, so I can remain somewhat fatalist about real life while very much enjoying the intelligent, well-written overview of human-relevant microbiology, history of antibiotics, and discussions of the author’s ongoing scientific experimentation. I would recommend this to science nerds and any woman considering a C-section for any reason beyond that of life and death. (Or you can just take my word for it while I summarize that part of the book: Don’t. Your baby will thank you.)

So the British scientists took their efforts to Peoria, Illinois, where the new Fermentation Division of the Northern Regional Research Laboratory was gearing up studies about using the metabolism of molds (fermentation) as a source of new microorganisms. Its staff was experienced and had a substantial collection of molds, but few of their strains made penicillin, and none was prolific. Thus the call went out to everyone they knew: send us samples of soil, moldy grain, fruits, and vegetables. A woman was hired to scour the markets, bakeries, and cheese stores of Peoria for samples bearing blue-green mold. She did the job so well they called her Moldy Mary. But in the end, a housewife brought in a moldy cantaloupe that changed the course of history. This particular mold produced 250 units of penicillin per milliliter of broth. One of its mutants churned out 50,000 units per milliliter. All strains of penicillin today are descendants from that 1943 mold.

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