Noting that a normal human body of 10 trillion cells also has 100 trillion bacteria, fungi, viruses, and protozoa on and in...

Germs Are Us


Benarde covers everything you wanted to know—and some of what you didn’t—about the interactions of humans and the microbes that live with us in this engrossing exploration of the human biome.

Noting that a normal human body of 10 trillion cells also has 100 trillion bacteria, fungi, viruses, and protozoa on and in it, microbiologist Benarde (You’ve Been Had! How the Media and Environmentalists Turned America into a Nation of Hypochondriacs, 2002) treats the human-microbial symbiosis as a (usually) harmonious “supra-organism.” The benefits we derive, he contends, are manifold: microbes in our gut help digest food and produce vitamin K; normal skin bacteria crowd out harmful pathogenic bacteria and secrete substances that kill them; gut microbes can reduce our risk of gastric and bowel cancers and enhance the effectiveness of anti-tumor agents; the species Mycobacterium vaccae appears to cure depression; exposure to a wide variety of microbes in childhood reduces the risk of allergies and autoimmune disorders. Microbes, he continues, are essential to manufacturing our major foodstuffs, from bread to beer and cheese (Limburger cheese uses bacteria normally found on our—urp!—toes); bacteria add nitrogen to soils, digest oil spills and organic pollutants, and enable raindrops to condense from clouds. Benarde also devotes much space to those few delinquent microbes that cause human illness. He traces the histories of the germ theory of disease and antibiotics, describes the deadliest pathogens, from tuberculosis to HIV, and tours frontiers of antimicrobial hygiene, from improved hospital hand-washing to the use of radiation to kill food pathogens. The book sometimes meanders too much, but the author brings together a wealth of scientific lore in prose that’s interesting, accessible, and studded with entertaining historical anecdotes. His enthusiasm for the subject is, er, infectious—“Is that a hellofa jarring thought?” he muses about statistics indicating that we are “more microbial than human”—and he mounts impassioned arguments on policy issues, including stinging attacks on opponents of genetically modified foods and childhood vaccinations. The result is a thought-provoking reconsideration of our relationship with nature at the most intimate level.

Pub Date: Jan. 30, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-5005-7488-8

Page Count: 458

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: July 26, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2015

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Skloot's meticulous, riveting account strikes a humanistic balance between sociological history, venerable portraiture and...


A dense, absorbing investigation into the medical community's exploitation of a dying woman and her family's struggle to salvage truth and dignity decades later.

In a well-paced, vibrant narrative, Popular Science contributor and Culture Dish blogger Skloot (Creative Writing/Univ. of Memphis) demonstrates that for every human cell put under a microscope, a complex life story is inexorably attached, to which doctors, researchers and laboratories have often been woefully insensitive and unaccountable. In 1951, Henrietta Lacks, an African-American mother of five, was diagnosed with what proved to be a fatal form of cervical cancer. At Johns Hopkins, the doctors harvested cells from her cervix without her permission and distributed them to labs around the globe, where they were multiplied and used for a diverse array of treatments. Known as HeLa cells, they became one of the world's most ubiquitous sources for medical research of everything from hormones, steroids and vitamins to gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, even the polio vaccine—all without the knowledge, must less consent, of the Lacks family. Skloot spent a decade interviewing every relative of Lacks she could find, excavating difficult memories and long-simmering outrage that had lay dormant since their loved one's sorrowful demise. Equal parts intimate biography and brutal clinical reportage, Skloot's graceful narrative adeptly navigates the wrenching Lack family recollections and the sobering, overarching realities of poverty and pre–civil-rights racism. The author's style is matched by a methodical scientific rigor and manifest expertise in the field.

Skloot's meticulous, riveting account strikes a humanistic balance between sociological history, venerable portraiture and Petri dish politics.

Pub Date: Feb. 9, 2010

ISBN: 978-1-4000-5217-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2010

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An absorbing, wide-ranging story of humans’ relationship with the water.


A study of swimming as sport, survival method, basis for community, and route to physical and mental well-being.

For Bay Area writer Tsui (American Chinatown: A People's History of Five Neighborhoods, 2009), swimming is in her blood. As she recounts, her parents met in a Hong Kong swimming pool, and she often visited the beach as a child and competed on a swim team in high school. Midway through the engaging narrative, the author explains how she rejoined the team at age 40, just as her 6-year-old was signing up for the first time. Chronicling her interviews with scientists and swimmers alike, Tsui notes the many health benefits of swimming, some of which are mental. Swimmers often achieve the “flow” state and get their best ideas while in the water. Her travels took her from the California coast, where she dove for abalone and swam from Alcatraz back to San Francisco, to Tokyo, where she heard about the “samurai swimming” martial arts tradition. In Iceland, she met Guðlaugur Friðþórsson, a local celebrity who, in 1984, survived six hours in a winter sea after his fishing vessel capsized, earning him the nickname “the human seal.” Although humans are generally adapted to life on land, the author discovered that some have extra advantages in the water. The Bajau people of Indonesia, for instance, can do 10-minute free dives while hunting because their spleens are 50% larger than average. For most, though, it’s simply a matter of practice. Tsui discussed swimming with Dara Torres, who became the oldest Olympic swimmer at age 41, and swam with Kim Chambers, one of the few people to complete the daunting Oceans Seven marathon swim challenge. Drawing on personal experience, history, biology, and social science, the author conveys the appeal of “an unflinching giving-over to an element” and makes a convincing case for broader access to swimming education (372,000 people still drown annually).

An absorbing, wide-ranging story of humans’ relationship with the water.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-61620-786-1

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Algonquin

Review Posted Online: Jan. 5, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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