Freezing Faeces – A call to preserve our ever decreasing microbiome

Is our Westernised lifestyle changing our internal bacterial environment? What does this mean about our health?

Eleanor Gratton
23rd October 2018
Max Pixel be freely distributed with a Creative Commons Zero - CC0.

Everyone has heard the saying ‘The great outdoors does wonders for your health’, but have you ever heard ‘The great outdoors does wonders for your faeces (well, your microbiota)’? Thought not.

Last week, scientists discovered from stool samples that in comparison to more isolated populations, essential bacteria produced in our guts are diminishing at a rapid rate, which could have devastating effects.

Their solution – a ‘Noah’s ark’ of the gut microbiome, where stool samples of vital bacteria are stored ‘two by two’, in an attempt to preserve a diverse microbiome, which could then be used as a treatment to many non-communicable diseases. However, is the suggestion of the preservation of stool samples a bit extreme? Or is this the kind of lengths we need to go to in order to preserve critical cures, not only for ourselves, but for future generations as well?

Whilst bacteria are often talked about in the news as something as deadly as Ebola, some bacteria are valuable, if not even vital, for humans. For example, E. coli found in the gut is critical for digestion, and can reduce the risk of infectious diarrhoea, which can be fatal in young children. Furthermore, according to other news reports, in the 1970’s it was one the first bacteria to be used as a vector for the production of human insulin in the treatment of diabetes (one of the diseases whose prevalence could increase if we lose more of our microbiota). Therefore, it is understandable that a ‘microbial vault’ has been proposed by concerned scientists, which was published in the journal Science two weeks ago.

The proposal states that stool samples containing a wide variety of microbiota, which are believed to hold the key for treatments of many modern diseases in the future, such as asthma and inflammatory bowel disease, be stored in a safe, secure unit and used in experiments by researchers. Samples would mostly be taken from more isolated communities, as they are found to have the most diverse bacteria, with the study claiming that the variety of bacteria found in the gut of South American populations is double than that in the U.S.A. This is believed to be a result of industrialization and modernised lifestyles, which have a detrimental impact on the microbiome, causing the loss of critical bacteria. For example, the article states that Oxalobacter formigenes (a species of bacteria that normally colonise the human gut), prevents the formation of kidney stones by metabolising the substance that forms kidney stones, and so the disappearance of these bacteria from the body would result in a much higher occurrence of the condition.

Furthermore, another element thought to decrease microbiome diversity is increased exposure to antibiotics, leading to only certain strains of bacteria being able to survive. A loss of bacteria due to excessive antibiotic use has also been thought to contribute to an increase in the incidence of autoimmune diseases, which could become harder to cure with declining numbers and variety of gut bacteria. Who knew that a bit of penicillin could have such a bad impact on your poo?

However, is this proposal not a bit extreme? We could just swap our McDonalds for a salad and go on a camping trip every so often, and save our faeces samples with diverse bacteria that make up the microbiome from being stored in a hut, as well as being a little healthier for it. Or maybe this should ring alarm bells about the damage being caused by our modernised lifestyles, when extreme ideas like this seem like one of the few feasible options to not only save the planet, but save ourselves and future generations? In addition, with diabetes and obesity costing globally $2 trillion and $1.3 trillion/year respectively, maybe this proposal doesn’t sound as extreme as you first thought?

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