Yes, you read that right. And Microbiologist and enduro racer Lauren Peterson says “yes.”
Lauren Peterson, a scientist at a laboratory for genomic medicine in the United States, is one of an elite group of scientists looking at the gut microbiology of athletes. Petersen, who is specifically researching cyclists, founded the Athlete Microbiome Project – a study aimed at determining how the microbiomes of highly fit professional cyclists may differ from those of the general population.
Her connection to the topic is intimate. Petersen contracted Lyme Disease at 11 years old. She was on and off antibiotics and generally sick for more than a decade. Then, as she was finishing her PhD, she gave herself a fecal transplant from a competitive cyclist.
“I couldn’t find a doctor who could help me,” remembers Petersen. An interest in finding her own solutions had already propelled her towards a career in science, and while she was in grad school she had her gut sequenced by the American Gut Project (an Earth Microbiome study which operates as one of the largest crowd-funded science projects in the world). The results showed she was populated by 96% gram-negative pathogens so toxic that if they got into her blood stream they could kill her.
“I had no microbes to help me break down food, and I had picked up bugs in the lab where I was working because my system was so weak and susceptible.”
But a few months after her transplant, Petersen was training five days a week (up from her usual two). She started enduro racing, and was soon placing and even winning in the pro field. “I wondered if I had gotten my microbiome from a couch potato, not a racer, if I would I be doing so well,” remembers Petersen. “Then it made me wonder what the best possible microbiome for a racer would be.”
So, she started gathering stool samples from amateur and professional bike racers. She observed that Prevotella, a microorganism she received in her own transplant, is common amongst elite racers. “The more a person trains, the more likely they are to have Prevotella,” says Petersen. “In my sampling, only half of cyclists have Prevotella, but top racers always have it… it’s not even in 10% of non-athletes.”
She is currently extracting Prevotella to understand what it is, and how to boost its abundance naturally or through a probiotic pill for athletes or aspiring athletes. What she already knows: Prevotella synthesizes branch chain amino acids critical for muscle recovery.
In addition to Prevotella, Petersen has identified an archeon named Methanobrevibacter smithii, or M. smithii, which she believes is also significant. Archeon are ancient microorganisms that have managed to survive for millions of years in hostile habitats like sulfur springs and deep in the ocean. They also live in the human digestive system, where they have specialised functions. Like Prevotella, Elite cyclists often have M. smithii, but it’s less common in amateur racers. That’s significant because M. smithii also appears to be a performance-enhancing microbe.
What does it do? In science terms, it thrives on hydrogen and carbon dioxide and other bacterial waste products in the gut. In 12-year old boy terms, M. smithii eats the poop of bacteria. Yes, everybody poops, even bacteria, and it can have detrimental effects on your health. Namely: buildups of hydrogen and carbon dioxide can prevent the other bacteria in your gut from properly breaking down your food for fuel, which is bad news if you need calories for that sprint.
So in 12-year-old boy terms, M. smithii is kind of like a bacterial pooper scooper. In science terms, it helps you turn the food you’re eating into energy more efficiently. For example, it boosts the ability of your gut bacteria to break down fibre from fruit into the short-chain fatty acids that are critical fuel for athletes.
Petersen is still investigating how different foods can impact Prevotella, M. smithii, and the rest of the 120 species and 350 strains of microbes she’s identified in bike racers’ guts. And she doesn’t know if those microorganisms need other ingredients to work. She also doesn’t know if Prevotella and M. smithii are differentiators for cyclists only, or also common in elite gymnasts and other athletes too. So unfortunately it could be years, not months, before you’ll be able to buy performance-enhancing probiotics.
As for actual poop doping…. fecal transplants are available, but not in all countries. “If you have the money for the procedure, you will have to go to a clinic in the UK or the Bahamas,” says Petersen. “But you can’t choose your donor, and it’s a risky procedure. As with any transplant, your immune system could reject what you get. It’s not something you should take lightly. I did a lot of research, and I took a risk for sure.”
With the data collected from the Athlete Microbiome Project, Petersen is diving into research not just on performance enhancing probiotics for cyclists, but whether cyclist-derived gut microorganisms could boost the health of athletes and non-athletes alike, providing greater long-term benefits than the probiotics currently available.
“What we’re learning is going to change a lot for cyclists as well as the rest of the population,” says Petersen. “If you get tested and you’re missing something, maybe in three years you’ll be able to get it through a pill instead of a fecal transplant. We’ve got data that no one has ever seen before, and we’re learning a lot. And I think I can say with confidence that bacterial doping—call it poop doping if you must—is coming soon.”