Good Germs, Bad Germs

By JESSICA SNYDER SACHS

Twin horror stories lead off this slender but vastly informative examination of bacteria and their intimate, complex role in our lives. One is an account of a high school football star stricken by a drug-resistant infection; the second describes a child whose food allergies threaten his life. Jessica Snyder Sachs tells their tales movingly but swiftly leaves them behind for her real subject: how our modern “war on germs” may have given rise to both their conditions. What follows is a Fantastic Voyage through the human body and the world of its millions of microbial denizens. It’s a journey that sheds light on why, for all the scientific advances in hygiene and antibiotics, developed countries continue to face new and more daunting challenges in the form of “superbugs” and out-of-control allergies. Sachs isn’t afraid of a little lab-speak, and Good Germs, Bad Germs will often make you wish you’d paid more attention in Bio 101. But the author has a knack for giving dramatic form to the many organisms that take the stage here. As she demonstrates how microbes swap genes, send out radar-like detection molecules, and brilliantly adapt to the strategies we use against them, we watch their astonishing feats as if in a brilliantly animated film. The result is an important — and eye-opening — inquiry into human-microbe coevolution. -