Review: Martin Blaser’s Missing Microbes

Blaser, Missing Microbes

7 Responses

  1. Jeff Leach says:

    Travis – Nice piece and great overview of Marty’s book. However, your comment:

    “Rather than romanticizing the “pre-modern” excrement of other cultures, important work still needs to be done in exploring how the microbiome keeps us healthy.”

    kinda misses an important area of research. Trying to characterize the gut microbiota of a free-living population like the Hadza is important to understand what microbes we may have lost and importantly, how much diversity we may have lost. This goes to the core of microbial ecology. For example, we now know that various non western populations around the word harbor a much greater alpha diversity – that this changes seasonally – and that what we may consider normal or typical in the west (say, for example, a gut dominated by bacteroides) is not really seen in remote, non Ag societies. More importantly, vertical and early horizontal transmission in these rural kiddos is an important baseline when we start thinking about autoimmune diseases. And to your comment “exploring the actual mechanics of microbial ecologies” is important and spot on – but doing so without some basic understanding of pre modern human (and non human primate data) is flying without a net – and doing so with “potentially” one had tied behind your back. That said, let the rural and hunter gatherer data amass over the coming years – don’ hender – it will pay dividends my friend. J

    • Travis De Wolfe says:


      Thanks for taking the time to read my review!

      In response to your comment – I believe the goal of displacing the western-microbiome to acquire the diverse microbes we may have lost operates on the problematic assumption that the Hadza possess the equivalent of our ancestral microbiome. Anthropogenic change has had extensive impacts on all of earth’s inhabitants and, importantly, their guts. Inevitably, this has affected the Hadza. Therefore, isolating them as “pre-modern”, unaffected by the far-reaching effects of human induced change throughout the world, attempts to find a constant or baseline where none exists.

      Others in the social sciences have turned to hunter-gather populations to shed light onto the ‘secrets’ of our pre-modern social, economic, political—and now microbial—lives. But it has since been deemed methodologically unsound to identify current practices of some human populations as identical or analogous to pre-modern practices. As Sassaman notes, “[i]t is no longer reasonable to conceptually isolate a hunter–gatherer population for study under the premise that it genuinely represents humanity in a primitive state…” (Sassaman, 2004) Commenting on the 1960s Kalahari Project Sassaman argues that for an array of reasons, one of which include the baseless romanticizing of certain populations as outside institutionalized structures and practices (modernity being one example), ““primitive” societies of the ethnographic present are best understood as components, not antecedents, of complex societies” (ibid).

      Human practices across the globe shift over time so, by definition, no population can represent those of the Pleistocene as you have claimed. I don’t want to leave this as a semantic point, and I agree that the association between diversity and health is important – your data illustrates this. I instead argue that our efforts to restore our microbial diversity should be focused in the present (possibly without having to identify or standardize a baseline) and at an individual scale.

      We know that our microbiome is a rather resilient ecosystem, such as in the case of the fecal transplants, where colonization by a donor community after a fecal transplant is short-lived. This brief example allows us to recognize that standardization of the microbiome to a baseline that, in the case of the Hadza, you believe is ‘healthy’ may not only be a difficult, if not an impossible, objective. It is also an objective that may not lead us closer to understanding the associations between health and the microbiome; for these answers, we need to strive for a fuller understanding of how our gut microbiota keep us healthy—a pursuit in which mechanistic understandings will figure centrally.

      Travis J. De Wolfe

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