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A Tortoise File

The Gut

The new frontier of medical science is closer than you think – much closer. It lies within us, in the bacteria and viruses of the gut, and in the mysterious efficacy of faecal transplants.

First published
Thursday 23 January 2020

Last updated
Wednesday 18 November 2020

Why this story?

Modern medicine has gone to shit. Yes, hospital waiting times are too long, healthcare is too expensive and there are not enough nurses. But medical science has turned to waste in a more literal sense. Because actual human waste may hold the key to the world’s most pressing health challenges.

Revulsion from human excrement is in part our response to the way it looks and smells. The persistent brown stain is caused by stercobilinogen (a byproduct of the gut bacterial metabolism of haemoglobin) and the stink is caused by intestinal fermentation (no explanation needed). It is also a psychological reflex, ingrained by potty training and social stigma. This aversion is an important safety mechanism; hand-washing and sewer systems prevent the spread of diseases that have killed millions. This is bad shit.

But what if faeces is not just a toxic waste product to be flushed away into a porcelain chamber? What if it is a medicine? Would you eat a shit sandwich if your life depended on it?