Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Baby poop capsules: Coming soon to a pharmacy near you?
While the probiotic trend has been suspect at best, there is one therapeutic application that keeps holding up: fecal transplant.
The emergence of probiotics on supermarket shelves is further proof of our habit of putting the cart before the horse. Researchers discover a potential breakthrough; the public gain a little knowledge of this before extensive clinical studies can be conducted; bottles of probiotics—echoing the American mantra, “more is better!”—fly off the shelves. A wonder-cure is born.
Probiotics might possess incredible healing powers, but specificity matters. You can’t overload on any old bacteria and expect the results to only be positive. As science writer Ed Yong points out, destroying “harmful” bacteria can ultimately cause chaos in the microbiome ecosystem.
A recent study from Augusta University brought more bad news:
Probiotic use can result in a significant accumulation of bacteria in the small intestine that can result in disorienting brain fogginess as well as rapid, significant belly bloating, investigators report.
That study only involved 30 patients, so we should take those results with caution. Yet caution is the last thing companies mailing you home microbiome kits are displaying. A whole host of businesses promise to shed insight on your insides when you mail in a vial of your poop; the results have not been sound.
And yet, poop holds the key to understanding your insides. It just requires more extensive testing. The only therapeutic application regarding the microbiome that’s holding up, according to Yong, is fecal microbiota transplant—using someone else’s poop to colonize your colon, through a colonoscopy, enema, orogastric tube, or by ingesting freeze-dried poop in capsule form. While the gag reflex often follows the explanation, this therapy is being used to treat a variety of gastrointestinal disorders and even neurological conditions such as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s.
Not all bacterial sets will treat every symptom, Yong continues; patients with the same illness will not be healed with the same poop. That’s because microbiome diversity is an essential component of individual health. Bacterial combinations have to be tailored to each patient. "These are not one-size-fits-all solutions. They will need to be personalized," says Yong.
Personalized medicine is an important evolution in our understanding of treatment; it will require vigilant research and large populations to study. Some treatments really are universal, such as vitamin C treating scurvy. Yet when it comes to what’s inside of our guts, too many individual factors need to be considered: diet, genetics, environment, stress and fitness levels, just to begin with.
The microbiome is one of the most fascinating areas of research despite so-called holistic companies capitalizing on an uncertain trend, which made this news raise a few eyebrows last week:
Scientists at Wake Forest School of Medicine have developed a probiotic “cocktail” derived from gut bacteria strains found in infant feces that may help increase the body’s ability to produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs).
Hariom Yadav, lead author and assistant professor of molecular medicine, notes that patients with diabetes, obesity, autoimmune disorders, and cancers often have low levels of SCFAs. He speculates that increasing these acids might improve their conditions, leading to better overall health.
Yadav also states that the over-the-counter variety of probiotics has deceived the public. Clinical research has only been conducted on animals and humans with diseases, not disease-free subjects. Buying supplements for general health and well-being is unfounded, with the research being inconsistent as to its actual benefit.
For this study, published in the Nature journal, Scientific Reports, Yadav’s team collected fecal samples from 34 healthy infants, totaling 321 diaper samples. They analyzed the best ten samples they collected, treating mice and human feces with the same cocktails in either single- or five-dose feedings.
While the study didn’t focus on any specific disease, Yadav was focused on the proliferation of SCFAs, observing if they could repopulate ecosystems. He felt confident in the results:
This work provides evidence that these human-origin probiotics could be exploited as biotherapeutic regimens for human diseases associated with gut microbiome imbalance and decreased SCFA production in the gut. Our data should be useful for future studies aimed at investigating the influence of probiotics on human microbiome, metabolism and associated diseases.
Given that we often don’t understand the chemistry inside many of the capsules we consume, freeze-dried poop might be the future of treatment, at least for certain diseases. While Yadav’s evidence is not conclusive—you might want to reconsider any solution by Gerber’s in the near future—the state of our guts continues to fascinate. And if a colony of bacteria proves helpful in treating some of our most deadly diseases, swallow away.
How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
Meteorologists propose a stunning new explanation for the mysterious events in the Bermuda Triangle.
One of life's great mysteries, the Bermuda Triangle might have finally found an explanation. This strange region, that lies in the North Atlantic Ocean between Bermuda, Miami and San Juan, Puerto Rico, has been the presumed cause of dozens and dozens of mind-boggling disappearances of ships and planes.
A unique exoplanet without clouds or haze was found by astrophysicists from Harvard and Smithsonian.
- Astronomers from Harvard and Smithsonian find a very rare "hot Jupiter" exoplanet without clouds or haze.
- Such planets were formed differently from others and offer unique research opportunities.
- Only one other such exoplanet was found previously.
Munazza Alam – a graduate student at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian.
Credit: Jackie Faherty
Jupiter's Colorful Cloud Bands Studied by Spacecraft<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8a72dfe5b407b584cf867852c36211dc"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/GzUzCesfVuw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Scientists discover burrows of giant predator worms that lived on the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- Scientists in Taiwan find the lair of giant predator worms that inhabited the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- The worm is possibly related to the modern bobbit worm (Eunice aphroditois).
- The creatures can reach several meters in length and famously ambush their pray.
A three-dimensional model of the feeding behavior of Bobbit worms and the proposed formation of Pennichnus formosae.
Credit: Scientific Reports
Beware the Bobbit Worm!<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1f9918e77851242c91382369581d3aac"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/_As1pHhyDHY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The idea behind the law was simple: make it more difficult for online sex traffickers to find victims.