Between the Pages: Missing Microbes

Welcome to the first instalment of Between the Pages, where I read and review books about science. 

Missing Microbes:  How the overuse of antibiotics is fueling our modern plagues. By Martin J. Blaser, MD. (HarperCollins)
Missing Microbes: How the overuse of antibiotics is fueling our modern plagues. By Martin J. Blaser, MD. (Source)

If science was Hollywood, the microbiome would be its new It Girl. The paparazzi report on its every move to see which new disease or condition it will be associated with next. Fans clamor to buy the newest supplement that promises to restore your microbiome to a “healthy” state.

Feeling a bit late to the party? Let’s bring you up to speed. Simply put, the human microbiome is the collection of microorganisms that share our body. These include the bacteria, viruses, and fungi that live on our skin, in our mouths and digestive tracts, and in all our bodies’ little nooks and crannies. Even though they are microscopic in size, their numbers are daunting: there are 10 microbial cells for every human cell in our body! Most of these microorganisms are beneficial to us. They help us digest food and extract nutrients that we wouldn’t be able to get on our own. They strengthen our immune system so that it can better recognize and fight off invading pathogens. They prevent harmful microbes from taking hold in our bodies by depriving them of important nutrients. So, that’s great! Three cheers for our microbiome!

But what happens when our microbiome changes and the balance of species is shifted? As Dr. Martin Blaser argues in his book Missing Microbes, that’s when things start to go wrong. Continue reading

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The Social Network: Why mama chimps behave differently with sons and daughters

Ah, social skills. The curse of awkward teenagers everywhere and a key factor in determining the success of your upcoming blind date. As humans, we use our social skills to communicate and interact with others in both selfish and altruistic ways.

Like humans, chimps are highly social animals that live in communities. (Source)
Like humans, chimps are highly social animals that live in communities. (Source)

Chimpanzees, our closest living relative, also possess deft social skills. Adult male chimpanzees rely heavily on their social skills to form coalitions with other males to help them rise in the ranks and produce more offspring. On the other hand, female chimpanzee hierarchies are not determined based on strength and aggression, but rather, based on age. Females also spend a lot of time by themselves, nursing and taking care of their offspring. Are having good social skills, then, more important for male chimps than for female chimps? Would male infant chimps benefit more from having social interactions than females? Continue reading

Rethinking cholera treatment: is rice a better option?

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Poor sanitation conditions and lack of infrastructure have contributed to the re-emergence of cholera globally. (Source)

What if the cold medication you’re taking is actually helping to make your cold last longer and your symptoms worse? How could that happen? What effect would it have on your ability to infect other people? Those are the types of questions that researchers at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland tried to answer in a study about cholera. The team led by Drs. Melanie Blokesch and Andrea Rinaldo studied whether the currently used standard treatment for cholera could be improved upon by substitution of a key ingredient. Continue reading