A Family 'Poo-rtrait' for the Holidays

Unraveling the mysteries of the gut

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With Christmas just a week away, I imagine lots of you are scrambling to get that annual family portrait taken in time to send out a "Season's Greetings" card. But not so for the Freumans this year! That's because I've already lined up plans for our first-ever family "poo-rtrait."

I know what you're thinking. What on earth is a poo-rtrait? Is it as gross as it sounds? Why on earth would someone do this? And: I hope I'm not on her mailing list!

For starters, what I refer to as a family poo-rtrait is actually a group rate for "DNA extraction and 16S rRNA sequencing" of stool samples from four members of my family by a project called American Gut. It's an ambitious research collaboration among 30 scientists whose goal is to analyze the American microbiome—or, the ecosystem of bacteria and other microscopic organisms that colonize our skin, mouths, and guts. The researchers are aiming to collect 10,000 biological samples from Americans of all ages and backgrounds along with detailed information about their diets, health, and lifestyles to understand the relationship between what we eat, how we live, and which microscopic species we host.

As if its research questions weren't cool enough, the project is using crowdsourcing to both fund and populate its study. To obtain and process the large number of samples required, the study's researchers are asking for financial contributions from those who wish to have their poo (or saliva or skin) analyzed for the greater good of science. Instead of offering donors a token gift like a tote bag or umbrella, however, the project is providing an analysis of each donor's microbiota along with information on how it compares to that of their fellow Americans. (Even the skeptics among you must concede that this is a far cooler perk.)

In January, I will receive four kits to use for collecting stool samples from my nearest and dearest. After recording a detailed food journal for seven days, I will collect and send off our poo to Colorado and wait. When all is said and done, I will have information about what bacteria live in my (gluten-free, late 30-something) gut and be able to compare it to information about my two-year-old twins—one of whom is a virtual fruitarian, and the other of whom eats lots of meat, beans, and vegetables, but almost no fruit. We can see how the microorganisms in our guts stack up in relation to those living in the gut of my husband, whose diet is based on the food groups of coffee, chocolate, and bacon. A family poo-rtrait, indeed!

I recognize that this may beg the question: Why would I care to know which microorganisms are living in my gut and in the guts of my kids? Fair enough. There are a few reasons.

First, I am fascinated by the emerging research regarding the complex role of the gut's resident bacteria (or, gut flora) in parts of the body far removed from their immediate surroundings. I believe that the coming decades will bring numerous scientific breakthroughs, which will fundamentally change how we treat and prevent diseases ranging from obesity and diabetes to autoimmune conditions like celiac disease, Crohn's, and asthma. I also suspect that the gut flora will play a central role in many of these discoveries. It's exciting to consider that something I would normally just flush down the toilet could actually contribute some key data points in facilitating such important discoveries!

Second, picture me: a dietitian who works in a gastroenterology practice. People come in with digestive woes, and it's my job to tell them what to eat to feel better. Then, all of a sudden, on the eve of Christmas, someone offers me a chance to see, on paper, how four different diets of four healthy people correlate to their respective gut flora. It's a gift! Might I learn something that could help me help my clients?

Third, if I may wax philosophical: Our gut flora belong in a family portrait. They are living things that literally cohabitate with us, and in so doing, make it possible for us to function normally on a day-to-day basis. Isn't that what family is for? The bacteria living inside us are not separate and apart from us; they are an integral, symbiotic part of us. In some ways, they are more "us" than we are.

Think about it: There's more bacterial DNA in your body than there is your own DNA! The more we begin to consider these creatures part of our family, the more we are likely to make decisions about our diets, antibiotic use, childrearing practices, and germophobic tendencies that will help promote the health and well being of the beneficial microorganisms who consider us home.

I recognize that few others share my unbridled enthusiasm for poo and all of the untapped possibilities it harbors. However, I am far from alone! According to the American Gut people, there are already plenty of high-profile celebs who have signed up and pledged to dish about their own personal poo-rtraits.

But rest assured, dear readers: I will not be joining them. After all, every family has its secrets.

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback.

Tamara Duker Freuman, MS, RD, CDN, is a NYC-based registered dietitian whose clinical practice specializes in digestive disorders, Celiac Disease, and food intolerances. Her personal blog, www.tamaraduker.com, focuses on healthy eating and gluten-free living.