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Spadina Literary Review  —  edition 6 page 22


Our friends the germs

The Germ Code
How to Stop Worrying and Love the Microbes

by Jason Tetro
ISBN: 978-0-385-67853-7

reviewed by
Calumet Reed

The author, Jason Tetro, is a former microbiologist at U of Ottawa. He says he was known as “the Germ Guy.” Nowadays he works in the private sector as a germ consultant guy. He wrote this book “to help smooth out relations between humans and germs.”

Ever since microscopic life was discovered in the 17th century, humanity, or at least the Western front thereof, has waged a sort of War on Germs. Yet of the millions of bacterial, viral, fungal and protozoan species in, on, and around us, only a tiny fraction are actually harmful to humans.

As to those bad germs that do infect and maybe even kill us — the pathogens that give all germs a bad rap — we unfortunately are losing our ability to knock them out, because they've developed or are developing resistance against the antibiotics we throw at them.

The thing is, germs evolve like crazy. That’s their program, their “code” as Tetro says, that’s what they do. Given a suitable host, they reproduce at a blistering pace, exponentially. Certain viruses, once they get control of a healthy cell, they can use it to reproduce tens of billions of comrades per day.

Now what? I guess pretty soon the Earth will be swarming with invincible super-germs.

Jason Tetro says let's enlist good germs to fight the bad germs. He cites one trial where hospital infection rates were reduced merely by opening the windows to admit fresh air. The inflow of ordinary germs diluted the concentration of harmful germs, Tetro figures. He points to clinical trials where good germs have been injected into patients’ bodies to help restore the balance that was upset by an invasion of bad germs. He especially waxes enthusiastic about biotek start-ups whose genetically-engineered wonder-germs promise to cure some cancers. Tetro talks a lot like a marketer, or rather, as he would say, a “germevangelist.”

That basically is the message of The Germ Code.

Surprisingly, the vast majority of the book is focused on pathogens and how they afflict us with horrible diseases, which seems at cross-purposes with Tetro’s stated goal of providing a more balanced appreciation of germs.

Here's a sample pathogen, just for fun: the Ebola virus. You accidentally inhale it, or maybe it sneaks into your body thru a cut. At first you get fever and chills, you think you've got a bad flu. But the virus spreads thru the body, taking up residence in your immune system cells. Within a week, you have diarrhea and vomiting. Next come blurred vision, confusion, delirium. Blood begins to seep out thru orifices including ears and eyes, and blood fills the internal body cavities, swamping the organs. After two weeks of this hell, you die.

Personally I don’t like reading the details of diseases because they just make you paranoid and hypochondriac.

Another thing is that the book contains too much labwork for my taste. Tetro thinks we need to know how this or that discovery was made. We already know. Some guy spots an oddity, some other guy does an experiment, a third guy is looking for A but finds B instead, a fourth guy fits all the parts together. The reality of science is that it’s so incremental, it’s like watching paint dry.

Actually, when I picked up this book I was anticipating something else. Maybe the sub-title misled me. I assumed the author was going to build a picture of a harmonious, Edenic biosphere, which would naturally oblige him to address the problem of evil.

Some people, including I think probably Jason Tetro, would argue that there is no evil in nature. It’s just a huge menagerie with all the parts scrambling to make a living.

Look, you find pathogens with tricks and camouflage to fool the immune system, with strategies to commandeer healthy cells for their own self-propagating purposes: isn’t that evil? Look at the amoeba N. fowleri. It gets up your nose when you’re innocently swimming, then it chews its way along your olfactory nerves and starts to eat your brain. You don’t know what’s happening until one day you’re delirious and your buddies drag you to the emerge. You die in two weeks. Isn't that evil?

In short, I was searching for a sort of micro-ponorology — ponorology means the study of evil, and micro means micro — but I suppose I can’t fault the author if he writes what interests him instead of what I’m fishing for.

The Germ Code is informative, especially for people who like reading about diseases. It gives insight into where medicine might head in the future. It’s a quick read if you skim over the dull parts. I don’t know if it'll help you develop a more congenial attitude toward germs, however. Myself, I’m washing my hands and scrubbing the sink like about fifty times a day.