Feeling sluggish during your runs? In the near future, rather than reaching for an energy drink, you may opt to chug a concoction of your favorite athlete’s gut bugs.
A team of microbiotic researchers affiliated with Harvard University Medical School plan to launch a company this fall that aims to find and purify the best bugs from the feces of elite athletes and then market them as probiotic supplements in pill, liquid or powder form.
The company in the works, fitBiomics , taps a swiftly expanding field of science analyzing the human microbiome.
Every person hosts at least tens of trillions of microorganisms, according to a 2016 assessment published in the journal Cell.
That amounts to about 5 pounds (2.3 kilograms) of bacteria and other microorganisms.
That news may be repellent to some, but for Jonathan Scheiman, the mass of microorganisms swarming inside our bodies smacks of a great business opportunity.
“Probiotics is a 60-million-dollar market and 90 percent of that market is derived from two types of bacteria essentially,”
says Scheiman, a microbiologist and post-doctoral fellow at the Wyss Institute , which was founded by renowned Harvard Medical School geneticist George Church.
“We have trillions of bugs in our gut that are waiting to be discovered to disrupt the industry.”
The trillions of microbes in each person’s microbiome work in concert with the human body to fend off disease, promote digestion, facilitate fuel-burning, aid in recovery and even sharpen mental health and acuity. Scheiman, who once played Division 1 basketball at New York’s St. John’s College, believes that feeding the right mix of microbes to our guts could offer a new approach to enhancing athletic performance.
His idea is that rather than using sophisticated genetic sequencing technology to zero in on disease-causing microbes, why not hunt for microbes that help support elite athletes.
“We are using next-generation sequencing to understand what makes the most healthy and fit people in the world unique,”
“We want to extract that information to develop nutritional products that may one day benefit all athletes or even just the general population.”
To hunt down “performance probiotics,” Scheiman has been in pursuit of elite athlete’s poop for the past two and a half years.
As he says, “Basically I collect a lot of sh**.” He has recruited fecal donors from athletes participating in the Boston Marathon and at the Summer Olympics in Rio.
He also has tapped donations from ultramarathon runners and Olympic Trial rowers.
By comparing prerace and postrace samples from the marathon runners, Scheiman and his team noted a spike in a type of bacteria that he believes helps in breaking down lactic acid, a byproduct of anaerobic activity.
They isolated the bacteria and are currently feeding it to mice to see how it might influence the animals’ lactic acid and fatigue levels.
Scheiman also has compared the athletes’ microbiomes and found a type of bacteria common in ultramarathoners that appears to play a role in breaking down carbohydrates (critical during extremely long runs), that was not present in rowers.
Other microbes identified by the team include ones that Scheiman believes help in energy metabolism, protein metabolism and anti-inflammation.
Scheiman says that he and his team have begun testing the safety and effectiveness of microbes isolated from his collection.
They evaluate the mice to ensure the microbes pass through the digestive system swiftly, and they test for signs that the microbes are having the intended effect.
So far, he says,
“We haven’t seen any risk of these microbes persisting in a way we don’t want them to.”
So far, Scheiman has stocked a large freezer with poop samples of around 50 athletes.
Once fitBiomics launches in the fall, he hopes to expand that fecal library to include samples from at least 100 elite athletes.
He even imagines partnerships that could feature products linked to well-known athletes by name (think “LeBron James Juice” or “Shalane Flanagan Fuel”).
“We’re talking to athletes now whom I’m sure you’ve heard of,”
Scheiman says. “When we launch in the fall, we’ll do a lot more to build out those relationships.”