Excrement is an unexpected hero. While not a subject discussed in polite company, in both medical and environmental arenas poop is coming to the rescue.
Take, for example, the positive buzz surrounding fecal transplants, which are heralded as possible cures for everything from asthma and depression to Crohn’s disease, MS, and the bacterial gut infection c. difficile.
As its name suggests, a fecal transplant is the transfer of feces from a healthy donor to an ailing patient. The transfer, explains Pagan Kennedy in The Atlantic is performed using colonoscopy instruments to squirt a diluted stool sample from the donor into the large intestine of the patient. If all goes as it should, the donor sample repopulates the recipient’s intestine with a healthy amount of good bacteria.
While it doesn’t sound pleasant, the simple procedure yields surprisingly positive results—sometimes clearing up chronic symptoms in only two days. “Lately, stories about the success of at-home fecal transplants have been spreading across the Internet,” Kennedy writes. Such DIY fecal transplants are becoming popular due to the hesitation of mainstream clinicians who have yet to embrace poop as a miracle cure. “So far,” says Scientific American, “fecal transplants remain a niche therapy, practiced only by gastroenterologists who work for broad-minded institutions and who have overcome the ick factor.”
Still, some doctors are reporting remarkable successes, Scientific American continues: “[A]bout a dozen clinicians in the U.S., Europe and Australia have described performing fecal transplants on about 300 C. difficile patients. More than 90 percent of those patients recovered completely, an unheard-of proportion.”
Our health isn’t the only thing that can be improved with feces, adds Sierra magazine’s Dashka Slater (with tongue in cheek): “In the future, poop will solve all our problems,” including environmental ones. She offers three examples of excrement’s energy prowess:
1) Dried flakes of human feces can be burned to produce energy. “The flakes, which resemble instant-coffee granules,” Slater says, “are made from dehydrated sludge, the fecal goo left behind after wastewater is treated.” Sixteen percent of the energy used by British water and sewage company Thames Water comes from human poo.
2) Elephant and panda poop contain bacteria that easily converts plants’ woody pulp into sugars. “Researchers at Mississippi State University (working with pandas) and at the Dutch technology company DSM (working with elephants) say that such bacteria could be key to producing cellulosic ethanol from biomass like wood chips, switchgrass, and corn stover.”
3) Manure on large hog farms produces high levels of methane. “Now Duke University and Duke Energy have teamed up to harness pig-poop power, using the methane from a 9,000-head hog farm in North Carolina to run an electrical turbine,” says Slater. The project produces enough energy to light up the kitchens, bedrooms, living rooms—and bathrooms—of 35 area homes.
Margret Aldrich is an associate editor at Utne Reader. Follow her on Twitter at @mmaldrich.