The Scatological Edition

• It is well known that our intestines harbor trillions of intestinal microorganisms, such as bacteria, that aid digestion. But new research shows that the kinds and numbers of intestinal microorganisms can cause health problems (e.g., colitis or diarrhea). Now a new discovery shows that the kinds of microorganisms in our gut can lead to obesity. When fecal material from obese humans was transferred into the intestines of germ-free mice (i.e., no gut bacteria), these mice became obese. Conversely, when fecal material from lean humans was implanted in germ-free mice, the mice remained lean. In both studies, mice were fed a low-fat, high-fiber diet. So what can be concluded from this study? (Science, Sept. 6, 2013)

• A feature article in Science (August 30, 2013) was titled: “The Promise of Poop.” This scatological title calls attention to a new treatment that is helping hundreds of people deal with digestive disorders resulting from an imbalance in the microorganisms populating their intestines. An opportunistic bacterium called Clostridium difficile is often the culprit, for once it establishes itself in the intestine it divides rapidly and crowds out the normal bacteria associated with healthy digestion. When C. difficile takes over, it can cause terrible diarrhea and bowel inflammation, a disorder that kills about 14,000 people in the U.S. alone.

It all started in 2006, when the intestine of an elderly woman in Amsterdam was taken over by this bacterium. Unfortunately, the microbe was resistant to heavy-duty antibiotics and she was headed toward death. Her physician remembered a 1958 paper that reported success with fecal transplants. Desperate, he enlisted the aid of another physician and they flushed the contents of the woman’s intestine, eliminating the C. difficile bacteria. The lady’s son provided feces which were mixed with saline in a blender and the slurry was introduced into her intestine. Three days later she walked away from the hospital with a restorative population of healthy intestinal bacteria.

Since then, many such fecal transplants have been performed. In one study, 62 patients with ulcerative colitis were treated. All improved, and 68 percent of them showed full recovery. Efforts are now under way to create a “cocktail” of several dozen specific bacteria associated with intestinal health that could replace feces in fecal transplants. On July 29 of this year, the FDA approved a phase II trial of such a cocktail.

• Speaking of feces, the rarest and most expensive coffee in the world is called Kopi Luwak. It is derived from the feces of an animal called the palm civet, a native of Africa. Here’s the magic recipe. Feed high-quality coffee beans to civets and collect their feces. Then clean and ferment the feces, and dry them. After drying, the feces are roasted and ground up – ready for brewing. Thanks to microorganisms in the civet’s intestine, the resulting Kopi Luwak coffee is said to be exquisite but it may set you back as much as $80 a cup. Seconds, anyone? (The Economist, August 31, 2013)

• Dung-eating beetles roll feces into a ball and either burrow into it for feeding or roll the ball to a hole they previously dug. These beetles are very strong, for sometimes the feces ball may weigh 50 times the beetle’s weight. The strength record goes to a beetle that pulled a load 1,141 times its own weight. This is equivalent to a 140-pound person pulling 89 tons. (Debbie Handley, in, Sept. 23, 2013)