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How a mysterious, super-powerful—yet long-neglected—microbe rules our world and can rescue our health in the age of antibiotic resistance.
At every moment, within our bodies and all around us, trillions of microscopic combatants are waging a war that shapes our health and life on Earth. Countless times per second, viruses known as phages attack and destroy bacteria while leaving all other life forms, including us, unscathed. Vastly outnumbering the viruses that do us harm, phages power ecosystems, drive evolutionary innovation, and harbor a remarkable capacity to heal life-threatening infections when conventional antibiotics fail. Yet most of us have never heard of them, thinking of viruses only as enemies to be feared. The Good Virus prompts us to reconsider, and to discover, how these viruses could save countless lives if we can learn to harness their extraordinary abilities.
Taking us inside the ongoing quest to use phages’ powers for good, Tom Ireland introduces us to the brilliant, often eccentric, scientists who have fought to realize phages’ potential in the face of doubt and political intrigue. We meet the renegade French-Canadian scientist who discovered phages and pioneered their use as medicine over a century ago, leading them to be hailed as the world’s first genuine antibiotic years before penicillin. We learn why, in some pockets of the former Soviet Union, drinking a vial of phages remains as common as taking an over-the-counter drug. We follow the intrepid scientists and doctors now racing to make “phage therapy” work worldwide as the threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria grows ever more urgent—even as other researchers uncover how phages bolster our everyday immunity, help generate the oxygen we breathe, and furnish the origins for breakthrough technologies like CRISPR.
Unveiling the hidden rulers of the microbial world and celebrating the surprising power of viruses to heal, not harm, The Good Virus forever changes how we see nature’s most maligned life forms.
Tiny viruses that prey on bacteria could open a new front against infectious disease, according to this fascinating primer. Journalist Ireland's debut recaps the discovery of bacteriophages—"viruses that infect and kill bacteria" but are "essentially harmless to humans"—and details efforts stretching back a century to put them to use against harmful pathogens. Injecting or brushing phages on wounds has shown efficacy in curing dysentery and antibiotic-resistant infections, but large-scale deployment has proven difficult because phages are finicky about which bacterial strains they'll eat and bacteria sometimes develop resistance to phages during treatment. Politics also stymied the therapy's development, according to Ireland, who suggests that English-language scientists viewed it skeptically because they disregarded promising findings published in French, Georgian, and Russian journals and because the treatment's most prominent innovators hailed from the Soviet Union. Ireland keeps the science lucid and entertaining in a narrative that's full of colorful characters—in 1919, French microbiologist Felix d'Hérelle checked the safety of his phage elixir by swigging some himself before dosing his patient—and vivid prose: "The plates, where there was once a dense, healthy lawn of Shigella bacteria, would resemble a microbial killing field, covered in holes where the tiny epidemics were spreading." The result is a captivating portrait of an overlooked remedy.