When a person is taking antibiotics, many of the helpful bacteria in that person’s stomach get temporarily wiped out. Other bacteria may remain, however. One of those, clostridium difficile, can live outside the body for a long time, and therefore can spread pretty easily in hospitals. It can cause something called clostridium difficile infection, or CDI, which in turn causes diarrhea and colitis, at times leading to death. That’s the bad news. The good news? It’s treatable, perhaps with as high as a 90% success rate, with something called bacteriotherapy.
What’s bacteriotherapy? A feces transplant.
In 2010, the New York Times interviewed a physician, Dr. Alexander Khoruts, who had treated a CDI patient by employing bacteriotherapy. Dr. Khoruts’ patient had lost sixty pounds over eight months due to the infection, and antibiotics were unable to rid his patient of it. So he took another approach. Instead of trying to wipe out the clostridium difficile, he instead decided to introduce some of the good bacteria (like the bit seen above, magnified 10,000 times) back into his patient’s gut. Doing so, he hoped, would restore the balance in her digestive system, and end her seemingly chronic diarrhea. The Times described the process:
Dr. Khoruts decided his patient needed a transplant. But he didn’t give her a piece of someone else’s intestines, or a stomach, or any other organ. Instead, he gave her some of her husband’s bacteria. [He] mixed a small sample of her husband’s stool with saline solution and delivered it into her colon.
The transplant was a success — the patient’s diarrhea cleared up within a day and did not return. But more importantly — from the perspective of everyone other than the patient, that is — Dr. Khortus and his team were able to map the genetic makeup of the transferred bacteria and then, later on, was able to determine that the new, good bacteria in his patient’s gut was entirely made up of the types from the patient’s husband. Khortus was able to demonstrate that we can move colonies of microorganisms from one person to another.
With an estimated 10,000 different species of bacteria living in our bodies, and with bacteria outnumbering cells ten to one, this discovery may have implications for health care more generally. And if the fecal transplant treatment is any indicator, it could lead to fewer doctors’ visits, too. Why is that? Because as this scientific study notes, bacteriotherapy for CDI can be done at home.
Bonus fact: Cows’ digestive systems produce methane. When cows burp out the methane, they are emitting a greenhouse gas. Kangaroos have a diet similar to cows but their stomachs do not produce methane. Researchers believe that there is a type of bacteria found in kangaroos’ guts which is not present in cows’, and are exploring ways of introducing these bacteria into cows in hopes of obtaining the same effect.
From the Archives: Conan the Bacterium: A super-strong strain of bacteria which can survive intense radiation.
Related: A gift box of plush microbes. Hug an amoeba today!