Meli’sa Crawford: In my grand­moth­er’s house­hold, she would say that if we were hav­ing trou­ble poop­ing then we may be sick. This con­cept would intrigue me as a child. So you mean if I can’t poop then some­thing’s wrong with me? Well, why poop? I did­n’t know it at the time, but my grand­moth­er was plant­i­ng the first of many seeds used to help me devel­op into a future gas­troin­testi­nal researcher. Which also means that oth­er peo­ple’s poop is a huge part of my life.

I grew up in South Phoenix, which was con­sid­ered to be a food desert. While there were many gro­cery stores in the area, the qual­i­ty of the food was dis­ap­point­ing. And many fam­i­lies, like my own, could only afford fast food. Needless was to say, I saw many fam­i­ly mem­bers and friends strug­gling with their health. Which made me won­der if a lack of a bow­el move­ment were to blame.

Now my grand­moth­er isn’t a sci­en­tist, but she was def­i­nite­ly on to some­thing. Poop can tell us about our health. The gut micro­bio­me is asso­ci­at­ed with many meta­bol­ic and gas­troin­testi­nal dis­eases, like obe­si­ty, Type 2 dia­betes, and inflam­ma­to­ry bow­el dis­ease. 60 to 70 mil­lion peo­ple are affect­ed by diges­tive dis­or­ders, and over 97 bil­lion pre­scrip­tions are writ­ten annu­al­ly to treat these debil­i­tat­ing ill­ness­es. But a poor diet is the most impor­tant fac­tor that can deter­mine whether you get meta­bol­ic and gas­troin­testi­nal diseases. 

In our lab, we exam­ine how a high-fat diet can alter gut bac­te­ria and what pass­es through the intestines. We found that a high-fat diet can increase bac­te­ria asso­ci­at­ed with dis­ease. And it can also increase inflam­ma­to­ry pro­teins. In most cas­es, increas­ing fiber intake through fruits and veg­eta­bles can improve gut health. So the major­i­ty of infor­ma­tion that researchers and doc­tors use to help devel­op new treat­ments starts with know­ing the com­po­si­tion of your poop. For exam­ple, you can donate your fecal sam­ples to a non­prof­it stool bank like OpenBiome. With that infor­ma­tion, researchers can devel­op pills that con­tain healthy fecal microbes to treat patients who are suf­fer­ing from GI dis­or­ders. My hope is that one day we can improve food qual­i­ty and acces­si­bil­i­ty for under­priv­i­leged areas, so that one day we can elim­i­nate dis­ease risk.