For two weeks, Jonathan Scheiman spent five hours a day driving around Boston in a Zipcar, collecting poop from high-achieving Boston Marathon runners.
"I had a bunch of Styrofoam containers in the back filled with dry ice," says Scheiman, a post-doctoral biomolecular researcher at Harvard University. "I picked up samples, labeled them, and drove back to Harvard to put them into storage."
Scheiman is working to identify what elite athletes have in their guts. He has collected stool samples from runners and rowers to examine bacteria, looking for microbiomes that might improve their energy metabolism and provide some of the edge that allows them to succeed in endurance sports. The goal is to develop and commercialize probiotic supplements that may improve athletic performance or improve recovery time from a workout.
Scheiman did two poop patrols around Boston, one before and one after the marathon. This allowed him to compare feces from the preparation to the big event to that squeezed out after it. He says his team found an increase in a particular type of bacteria after the marathon, one that functions to break down lactic acid. During intense exercise, the body produces more lactic acid, which can lead to muscle fatigue and soreness. By purifying this natural lactic acid-fighting bacteria found in top runners, he could create a product that helps with endurance, Scheiman says.
He also compared the dookies of marathon runners to those of rowers training for the Olympics. Present in the dung of the runners—but not in that of rowers—was a type of bacteria that can help break down carbohydrates and fiber (processes that Scheiman says are more important in a run). This might be a key to producing niche microbiomes. He is currently in the midst of clinical trials involving of mice trying to support his ultimate aims.
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He recruited athletes via flyers, word of mouth and face-to-face interaction at venues where they train. "I didn't lead with 'Can I collect your fecal sample?'" Scheiman says. "I lead with, 'I'm Jon Scheiman and I'm from Harvard Medical School.'"
Once they understood his aim, athletes were often willing to take a stool collection kit and his contact info, he says. "Athletes are always looking for a way to get better, to optimize their recovery time," says Scheiman, who once dreamed of playing in the NBA. "They are very interested in this science. That's what this whole 'quantified self movement' is all about."
He also resisted the urge that many post-doctoral researchers might have in his position: Task some poor grad students with picking up the poop and, even worse, enduring Boston drivers all day. Scheiman says, "Sometimes when you really care about something, you have to get your hands dirty."
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