Scientists have identified the gut microbiome that makes elite athletes better than everyone else. After spending more than two years collecting fecal samples from top athletes, sequencing their microbiomes, and comparing them to mere mortals, molecular biologists at Harvard University, have isolated a single bacterium that preliminary studies suggest may be unique to athletically superior individuals. They hope to turn it into a probiotic that could prevent fatigue, aid endurance, and facilitate recovery. Or to use it to help you engineer a kid who can’t possibly suck at sports.
“I wanted to play in the NBA, I didn’t make it, so my backup was getting a Ph.D. in molecular biology,” Jonathan Scheiman, post-doc at Harvard who presented his findings at the American Chemical Society, told Fatherly. Scheiman’s athletic experience, combined with his scientific expertise, inspired him to ask his mentor, Harvard geneticist and legend George Church, if genomics could not only to predict the next Michael Jordan—but create him.
“What we’re doing is understanding what makes elite athletes unique and perform at an optimal level and then extract that that information to help others,” he explains. And, of course, to make money. The global probiotics market reached an estimated $35 billion in 2015 and is projected to hit $66 billion by 2024, despite many experts saying there’s no reason for healthy people to take them, and that they might do more harm than good. While probiotics are effective for people with compromised gut microbiomes and for preterm infants who lack the normal complement of good bacteria, it is very much a growth industry. The industry plays on our fears (and our desires to be super-human) by selling us bacteria pills and artisanal yogurt—even when their promises are not based on the best available evidence.
But while detractors called bullshit Scheiman and colleagues called actual shit, and started off by collecting fecal samples at the 2015 Boston Marathon. They compared daily fecal samples from 20 runners to that of 20 non-runners over the course of two weeks. “I literally was driving around Boston in a Zipcar for 5 hours a day picking up fecal samples and putting them in the back seat on dry ice,” Scheiman says. How he wasn’t banned from Uber is beyond us.
Scheiman and his team observed a number of different types of bacteria associated with athletic performance. But one bug stood out—and spiked in concentration after the marathon, suggesting a natural biological response. Despite repeated requests from Fatherly, Scheiman refused to reveal the nature of the proprietary bacterium—even its genus.
As for Scheiman’s next steps, he recently expanded his cohort to include about 50 athletes, (mostly runners and rowers) and his team is hard at work testing their mystery bug in the lab. They’ve already purified it in vitro (which is pretty important if you want to prevent future customers from literally eating poop) and fed it to mice to demonstrate that it’s safe and able to pass through a mammalian GI tract. For now, they’re running more animal trials and preparing to launch a company that will be called “Fitbiomics”. He hopes it will be ready for the market within a year.
The implications for athletes (and aspiring ones) are obvious. “If you want to run 100 miles, you’re probably going to want a bug in your microbiome that can be very efficient at extracting energy from food,” Scheiman says. However, the potential of this goes beyond sports performance and could be a hell of a boost for exhausted parents, he notes. “You don’t have to want to run a marathon to want to have more endurance.” You just have to have a toddler to chase.