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What Your Poop Says About You

On poop’s long, hairpin journey through our bowels, it picks up all kinds of microbes. When we defecate, we are not only getting rid of the remnants of what we’ve consumed, we’re also releasing a time-stamped capsule containing up to 1,000 species that assist us in the daily, dirty, life-abetting work of digestion.

This is the first day of this week’s series on gut science. We’ve also written about why we’re so obsessed with constipation, and there’s more to come later in the week.

Some scientists believe that these microbes can be the key to understanding certain diseases and conditions, such as inflammatory bowel disease, obesity and diabetes. The methods used to gather this data are an important consideration for microbiome research and yet, according to Deanna Gibson, director of the Center for Microbiome and Inflammatory Research at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus, there is no across-the-board standard for how poop is prepared, handled and stored in the lab. More importantly, a small portion of the poop, or subsample, is often all that is tested.

Researchers at Gibson’s lab in Canada believe that a subsample is insufficient. Our poop is far too complex for a small piece to give us the information we need. So to reduce the variability of microbiome data, her team has devised a method called homogenization. It’s a protocol that requires poop, liquid nitrogen, a mortar and pestle, and a sense of humor. Watch how it happens in the video above.

Christine Laskowski is a video producer for FiveThirtyEight.

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