Scientist, Author, Educator, Tree Canopy Biologist

Gift from the gut

If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough. — Albert Einstein

Nature's Secrets by CanopyMegDid you know that a hundred trillion microbes live in your digestive system, and yet almost nothing is known about them?

Our own bodies house one of the highest-biodiversity ecosystems on the planet, and only in the past year or two have medical researchers started to appreciate its importance. The resident bacteria, fungi, viruses, and other microscopic creatures in our digestive system are collectively called our gut microbiome, which is a fancy term for a very complex ecosystem that facilitates our digestion, susceptibility to infections, and many other aspects of our health.

Hard to believe, but we are composed of 97 percent DNA from these tiny organisms and only a mere 3 percent of our own signature. Our bodies are essentially a living condominium that houses trillions of tenants.

In the Dec. 1, 2014, issue of The New Yorker magazine, Emily Eakin writes about “The Excrement Experiment.” Sounds like a grizzly subject! Eakin cites a New Yorker who suffered from Crohn’s disease, requiring expensive antibiotics for three years, including intravenous infusions that cost over $12,000 each.

Eventually, the patient sent a humble email to his healthy neighbor requesting a donation of his poop. The kindly neighbor complied and was later quoted, “What he wanted was something I wasn’t using — that was going to waste.” Thanks to this neighborly stool donor, the patient’s health was turned around in a matter of days.

In addition to an alleged 100 trillion microbes in our gut region alone, other microbe communities inhabit our ears, our skin, and almost every other region of our bodies. So how do these tiny residents make such a successful invasion without our knowledge? Over evolutionary time, microbes have quietly served as our body’s security force, and sentinels of health. The loss of a healthy microbe community is linked to autoimmune disorders, obesity, allergies, asthma, and many digestive ailments.

The good news is that — with a diverse microbiome — we remain healthy! The bad news is twofold: One, we know next to nothing about this critical community inhabiting our insides; and two, our increasing reliance on antibiotics has destroyed many of these essential microbes.

Americans consume more antibiotics than any culture on Earth. Although antibiotics are intended to kill the bad stuff, they also destroy the good stuff. As a result of our over-consumption of medication, we may have jeopardized the biodiversity that keeps us healthy, our own microbiome community.

These gigantic condo complexes in our esophagus, our colon, and other orifices play a critical role in our human health that is only just emerging. We probably know more about the surface of Mars than what this community does, how it is composed, and ways to maintain it.

To explore the unexplored biodiversity of our bodies, a new nonprofit start-up called Open Biome opened last year in Boston as a stool bank, and now ships over 50 specimens per week to over 150 hospitals in 36 states (www.openbiome.org).

Operated by two graduates of Princeton and MIT, Open Biome provides screening, collection, and processing of human stools, and then air-freights the frozen samples to doctors and medical clinics for simple application, saving the doctors many hours and effort to create their own stool banks. Similar to the Red Cross Blood Bank, a stool bank performs a donor service that saves lives and significantly reduces medical costs for many patients.

A debilitating and sometimes deadly digestive illness called C. difficile can be arrested virtually overnight with a fecal transplant, and testing is underway to examine the efficacy of poop transplants for other gut ailments.

It would appear that our poop also serves as a signature of our personal health, and a healthy microbiome insures wellness. In the future, many ailments currently associated with our western culture — obesity, asthma, allergies and even autism — may be linked to the loss of certain microbes through excessive use of antibiotics. Stay tuned, as pioneering research at Open Biome explores the unexplored biodiversity of our very own bodies.

Want to learn more? Attend an illustrated lecture by the founders of Open Biome, who will speak about our human microbiome at the Selby Auditorium, USF-Bradenton campus, 8350 N. Tamiami Trail in Sarasota, at 5 p.m. Thursday. Sponsored by Southwest Florida’s TREE Foundation (www.treefoundation.org), this Fedder annual lecture is titled, “What’s the Poop? The World of Stool Banking, Poop Transplants, and the Human Microbiome.” All welcome — free!

As the Open Biome researchers say to convey wellness, hope you have a “crappy holiday!”

Meg Lowman, a longtime Sarasota-based scientist and educator, is chief of science and sustainability at the California Academy of Sciences.

Originally posted in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.