The human body is a well-oiled machine, and one that is performing at a peak level runs just a bit differently. Lauren Petersen, a microbiologist and cyclist, is trying to figure out how differently at a microscopic level. Petersen, who was diagnosed with Lyme Disease at 11, battled the disease for over a decade. She eventually gave herself a fecal transplant from a competitive cyclist as she was finishing her PhD. This was a solution devised by her, as she wasn't getting the help that she needed from doctors.
"I couldn't find a doctor who could help me," she told Bicycling Magazine's Berne Broudy. "I had no microbes to help me break down food, and I had picked up bugs in the lab where I was working because my system was so weak and susceptible." After the transplant, one of two things happened: Either Petersen absorbed part of the donor's soul, or it really worked on a microscopic level and made her internal systems healthier. Petersen, a longtime biker herself, was training five days a week rather than two just a few months after the transplant, and she wanted to figure out exactly why.
"I wondered if I had gotten my microbiome from a couch potato, not a racer, if I would I be doing so well," she said. "Then it made me wonder what the best possible microbiome for a racer would be." In her research, Petersen discovered a microorganism called Prevotella. Petersen observed that Prevotella was prevalent in top racers, and that some people don't even have it. "In my sampling, only half of cyclists have Prevotella, but top racers always have it ... it's not even in 10 percent of non-athletes," she explained.
A performance enhancing microbe called Methanobrevibacter smiithi (M smiithi) was also found in top racers, and it was less likely for amateur racers to have this as well. M smiithi converts food into energy more effectively, allowing top racers to maximize their carbohydrate intake while knowing that they'll get the most out of their meals. Petersen is attempting to piece all of this information together and find a way to effectively create something that athletes can use to their advantage.
If you're reading this article and rearing to get someone else's poop, pump the brakes. It is not a procedure that is available in the United States, and Petersen has several warnings for would-be patients. "You can't choose your donor, and it's a risky procedure," she said. "As with any transplant, your immune system could reject what you get. It's not something you should take lightly. I did a lot of research, and I took a risk for sure."
Petersen has hope for the future of the procedure, however. "What we're learning is going to change a lot for cyclists as well as the rest of the population," she said. "If you get tested and you're missing something, maybe in three years you'll be able to get it through a pill instead of a fecal transplant. We've got data that no one has ever seen before, and we're learning a lot. And I think I can say with confidence that bacterial doping -- call it poop doping if you must -- is coming soon."