Scientist Gives Himself Fecal Transplant To Try A Hunter-Gatherer's Microbiome

Why a field researcher from America has exposed his colon to the gut microbiome of a tribesman from Tanzania

Fecal bacteria, magnified 10,000x

Fecal transplant is increasingly accepted as a medical treatment for some diseases.Eric Erbe, digital colorization by Christopher Pooley

It's not often we encounter a story that begins with a line like this:

“AS THE SUN set over Lake Eyasi in Tanzania, nearly thirty minutes had passed since I had inserted a turkey baster into my bum and injected the feces of a Hadza man – a member of one of the last remaining hunter-gatherer tribes in the world – into the nether regions of my distal colon.”

The guy behind this essay, Jeff Leach, is part of a multi-national scientific research team that by his account has been living with the Hadza, hunter-gatherers in Tanzania, for over a year. They have collected hundreds of samples from humans, animals, and the environment in order to observe how the microbial communities in and around the Hadza change with the dramatic seasonal weather shifts in East Africa: six months of near-steady rain followed by six dry months.

The question driving the research is “what a normal or healthy microbiome might have looked like before the niceties and medications of late whacked the crap out of our gut bugs in the so-called modern world,” Leach writes.

The Hadza are contemporary people, Leach writes, not an undiscovered stone-age civilization. But they're excellent subjects for this research because they still live on plant and animal foods that humans have hunted and gathered for millennia, and their use of western medications is extremely limited.

The health impacts of what lives (or doesn't) in our guts are getting increased attention in Western dietary and medical circles -- and eating foods containing "probiotics" just scratches the surface. Recent research suggests that use of antibiotics may be fundamentally altering our gut biomes for the worse, increasing rates of allergies, asthma and weight gain. In one recent lab study, introduction of genetically altered gut bacteria prevented mice from getting fat. In another, artificial sweetners altered gut microbes and contributed to obesity and other metabolic disorders in mice, and some correlation to the same effect was found in people.

But, as the saying goes, more research is needed.

As for fecal transplants, they're no longer career killers in polite medical conversation. Swapping poop from healthy to sick persons is now an up-and-up treatment for curing chronic gastrointestinal disease. The launch of the OpenBiome fecal transplant bank in the U.S. earlier this year seems to signal that the technique is going mainstream.

As for Jeff Leach, he describes his primary scientific motivation for self-administering a fecal transplant as testing the hypothesis "of microbial extinction, something I believe we all suffer from in the western world and may be at the root of what’s making us sick." The biggest change Leach and his girlfriend have noticed since the transplant is that he's passing a lot less gas.