“Try this,” your friend hands you a golden liquid that swirls and bubbles in a pint glass. “This shit will save your life.” What do you do? Will you knock back the contents of the glass without a word or will you ask your friend what it is? Most likely, the latter; however, many of us throw things into our holobionts without questioning what exactly we are doing or what the likely effects may be. We try super food after super food—each one guaranteed to be the miracle cure that will make us thin, young, wrinkle free with healthy hearts and bowels. We buy foods with probiotics in the label, happily exposing our microbiota (and human cells) to powerful forces that change how our bionts live and die. But will this shit really save our lives?
In a very real way, what we expose ourselves to on a daily basis is not saving us. In fact, it seems to be making us worse. The last decade of research indicates that our microbial make up is changing to form a particular pattern associated with the Western diet and hygiene. Some researchers[i] claim that we are systematically destroying our beneficial bacteria, causing us to lose valuable biodiversity with each generation. The intention behind probiotics and including certain types of food like onions in our regular diet is to encourage diversity and growth of the beneficial bacteria. Will this tactic work? Or do we need to stop circling the core of the matter and actually look at what the organisms in our feces—thus our guts—have to offer? These are questions that explorers will help researchers answer.
A quick search for “fecal transplants” provides a myriad of people who believe the secret to human health resides in our excrement. From PoP[ii] to various instructional videos, people are actively exploring the curative properties of waste. Sometimes with very encouraging results as one mother explains while preparing a fecal enema for her daughter who suffers (or rather, suffered) from a bowel disorder but is now healthy due to twice weekly fecal microbiota transplants (FMT).
Use of feces to cure GI disease is nothing new. Though the first fecal transplant referenced in scientific literature occurred in 1958[iii], the Chinese recipe for yellow soup (basically diluted poop) has been around for over a thousand years. Still, intense interest in feces for health didn’t really become a mainstream (if you can use that word here) idea until the late in the 20th Century and the beginning of the 21st Century when clinical research began regularly reporting using fecal transplants[iv] to cure persistent C. difficile infections[v] as well as other bowel disfunctions. Now, studies in the Netherlands[vi] are investigating whether FMT can be a solution to metabolic syndrome and obesity to diabetes; while here, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is working out regulations to ensure the safet y and efficacy of FMT as a routine treatment for persistent and highly pathogenic bacterial infections[vii].
Poop! The new super food! However, before we all begin looking for fecal donors, we need to examine what exactly it is about poop that can so powerfully change our health—this examination needs to include not only our cellular bionts (including bacterial and human cells) but our viral ones as well. While many explorers are wading deep in the shit (literally) of this unexplored world, wiser ones are looking at guide maps (albeit rough ones) to help them understand how the human holobiont works and part of that understanding comes from knowing how we initially get our microbes as well as what they are doing in our gut ecosystem.