Book Review: Missing Microbes by Martin J. Blaser

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Have you ever experienced a painfully severe infection that was effectively treated with antibiotics? When used correctly, antibiotics possess incredible healing abilities.

However, it’s important to acknowledge that these drugs can also have significant side effects. Similar to how excessive herbicide can eradicate everything in your garden, including your beloved flowers, antibiotics can harm the beneficial bacteria in your gut that contribute to your overall health.

By delving into the insights provided in “Missing Microbes,” you can gain a better understanding of the advantages and disadvantages associated with antibiotics.

If you’re still uncertain about whether or not to read this book, this review will provide you with all the necessary information to make an informed decision about investing your time in it.

So, without further delay, let’s dive in and explore its contents.

Key Insights

Lesson 1: We owe our existence to the microbes that populated the earth long before us.

Have you ever considered how short our time on Earth has been compared to the vast history of our planet? If we were to compress the entire 3.7 billion years of evolution into a single day, humans would only make their appearance in the final few seconds. Meanwhile, microbes have been here since the very beginning.

Microbes are these incredibly tiny organisms like bacteria that can be found almost everywhere on Earth, from the soil beneath our feet to the air we breathe. They’re astonishingly abundant and actually make up the majority of the planet’s biomass. While we depend on microbes for our own survival, they don’t really need us in the same way.

It’s crucial to acknowledge and appreciate the role that microbes play in our lives, both the positive and negative aspects. On one hand, they’re vital for numerous processes that enable us to live. On the other hand, they can also be responsible for diseases that pose a threat to our health. Nevertheless, we should be thankful for the significant role they play in our world.

Lesson 2: In the event that an epidemic threatens to wipe out our species, antibiotics could be the salvation.

Did you ever stop to think about the monsters that could have wiped out our ancestors? We often imagine fearsome creatures like saber-toothed tigers or giant bears, but in reality, the greatest threat to humans throughout history has been bacteria.

Back in the day, bacterial epidemics didn’t pose a major risk to our species’ survival. You see, our ancestors lived in small, scattered groups. So if one person fell ill, the chances of the infection spreading to the entire population were slim. But as cities began to grow and people started living in close proximity, diseases found it easier to spread, leading to devastating epidemics.

One infamous example is the Black Death, which ravaged Europe during the 14th century, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. Even in the 19th century, diseases like cholera and smallpox continued to wreak havoc, despite advancements in hygiene.

Luckily, we now have antibiotics to safeguard us against infectious diseases. It all started with Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin in 1928, which marked a pivotal moment in medical history. Since then, we’ve developed a multitude of antibiotics that have saved countless lives. However, the excessive use of antibiotics has given rise to new challenges, such as antibiotic resistance.

It’s important for us to recognize the lessons of the past and find a balance in using antibiotics wisely. By doing so, we can continue to protect ourselves from bacterial threats while preserving the effectiveness of these life-saving medications.

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Lesson 3: Antibiotics can be as harmful as they are beneficial in saving lives.

You probably know someone who has benefited from antibiotics. These amazing drugs, developed in the 20th century, have saved countless lives and made it possible to treat a wide range of bacterial infections. They’re like superheroes fighting off harmful bacteria and keeping us healthy.

Let me share a story from the book “Missing Microbes” by Martin J. Blaser that illustrates the importance of antibiotics. The author himself fell ill with typhoid fever after traveling to India and Bangladesh. Thanks to antibiotics, he was able to receive the right treatment and recover. Without them, his situation could have been dire, or he might have taken a long time to get better.

However, antibiotics also have a dark side. They are frequently used in livestock production, and this overuse can lead to a serious problem called antibiotic resistance. It’s like bacteria going to the gym and building muscles to fight off antibiotics. This makes it harder to treat infections and can put our health at risk.

One reason antibiotics are used so much in livestock is due to poor cleanliness in animal facilities. These unsanitary conditions create a perfect breeding ground for diseases, so farmers rely on antibiotics to keep their animals healthy. But here’s the catch: when antibiotics are used in this way, they can promote the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. And guess what? These resistant bacteria can find their way into our food through the meat we consume.

If we keep using antibiotics excessively in agriculture, it could have serious consequences for our health. We need to find better ways to promote animal welfare and prevent disease without relying solely on antibiotics. Otherwise, we might lose our superpowers in the fight against bacterial infections.

Lesson 4: The overuse of antibiotics alters our microbiome and makes us more susceptible to infections.

Antibiotics may seem like a quick fix for infections, but they come with some serious drawbacks. While they do target harmful bacteria, they also wipe out the good bacteria in your gut, causing problems for your overall health.

Let’s take the case of Peggy Lillis, a healthy 56-year-old woman. She tragically passed away shortly after taking antibiotics for a dental procedure. The antibiotics disrupted the balance of bacteria in her gut, allowing Clostridium difficile (C. diff), a normally controlled bacterium, to multiply uncontrollably and wreak havoc on her system.

Even if you use antibiotics regularly, there’s a catch. In 1985, an outbreak of Salmonella hit Chicago hard, affecting a whopping 160,000 people and leading to numerous deaths. Surprisingly, a study revealed that those who had taken antibiotics within the month prior were over five times more likely to fall ill compared to those who hadn’t taken antibiotics. This means that while antibiotics may temporarily treat one infection, they can weaken your defenses and make you more susceptible to future infections.

So, it’s important to recognize that antibiotics aren’t a magic solution without consequences. While they can help fight infections, they also disrupt the delicate balance of bacteria in your body, potentially causing more harm than good in the long run.

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1. A Fathomable Journey into the Microscopic World

Dr. Martin Blaser’s book, “Missing Microbes,” offers a captivating exploration of the microscopic world that is both complex and wondrous. As a student microbiologist, chemist, and medical worker, I appreciate how he presents the dense subject matter of the human microbiome in a gentle and laid-back yet informative manner.

Blaser’s ability to make the topic accessible to a general audience, regardless of their scientific background, is commendable. Whether you haven’t studied microbiology since high school or are well-versed in the subject, this book provides a perfect entry point into understanding the urgent crisis of antibiotic overuse and the rise of “superbugs.”

2. Personal Accounts and Engaging Research

One of the highlights of “Missing Microbes” is the inclusion of first-hand accounts from Blaser’s research and medical practice. He shares intriguing stories, such as the initial assumptions surrounding Helicobacter pylori, a bacterium long believed to be solely detrimental. These personal anecdotes make the book relatable and engaging, allowing readers to connect with the author’s experiences.

Blaser’s research on H. pylori, specifically its potential benefits in early life and increased risks in adulthood, provides a captivating glimpse into the fascinating world of the human microbiome. The book’s latter half delves deeper into this research, offering a valuable overview of the topic.

3. Urgency and Relevance in Today’s World

“Missing Microbes” tackles the critical issue of antibiotic overuse and its impact on our health. Blaser raises awareness about the importance of balance and diversity within our microbiome for the proper functioning of our metabolic and immune systems.

Drawing on extensive scientific knowledge and analysis of health databases, he convincingly argues that repeated courses of antibiotics, particularly in early childhood, contribute to the rise of modern plagues like obesity, diabetes, asthma, and more. The book’s urgency cannot be overstated, and Blaser’s persuasive writing style makes it impossible to ignore the significance of this topic.


1. Lack of Inclusion of Vaccine Safety Discussion

One notable drawback of “Missing Microbes” is the absence of any discussion on vaccine safety. Given the author’s exploration of the impact of antibiotics on our health, it would have been valuable to include a comprehensive examination of the safety of vaccines.

Vaccines are a critical aspect of public health, and their safety has been extensively researched and studied. Ignoring this important topic leaves a gap in the overall discussion and fails to address concerns or provide a balanced perspective for readers.

Including a thoughtful analysis of vaccine safety would have added depth and credibility to the book’s exploration of microbiome-related health issues.

2. Premature Premise without Sufficient Evidence

While the premise of the book, linking the loss of commensal bacteria from antibiotic use to chronic diseases, is intriguing, it may be premature based on the evidence available to the author.

Blaser acknowledges that there is no hard evidence on the causative factors for diseases like asthma and diabetes, despite their increasing frequency alongside antibiotic use. Although the author’s premise may be fully developed later in the book, the lack of concrete evidence raises doubts about the validity of the claims made.

3. Lack of Practical Suggestions and Focus

Although the book presents an interesting thesis backed by convincing evidence, it falls short in providing practical suggestions for the layperson. The author does not offer guidance on how individuals can apply the book’s revelations in their daily lives.

Instead, Blaser implies that further research is needed before the findings can be incorporated into medical practice. While the book serves as a starting point, it feels ahead of its time and leaves readers without actionable steps to take.


I highly recommend the book “Missing Microbes” to anyone interested in health and nutrition. Taking the time to explore its ideas could have a positive impact on your life.

The author emphasizes the tremendous benefits of antibiotics, not only in treating long-standing diseases that have plagued humanity for centuries but also in promoting the growth of livestock. However, there are downsides. In our eagerness to eradicate harmful bacteria, we run the risk of wiping out essential bacteria.

Instead of reaching for antibacterial wipes, the author suggests using regular soap. While triclosan, a common ingredient in modern disinfectants, is not an antibiotic, it effectively kills bacteria. However, for the average consumer, regular soap is sufficient, even though it doesn’t have antibacterial properties. Many of the bacteria residing on your skin have been there for years, actively fighting off infections. So, why would you want to eliminate them?

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