Moselio Schaechter

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« Bacterial Antidepressants: Avoiding Stationary Phase Stress | Main | A Tale of Centenarians »

February 21, 2013

A Passing Thought

by Elio

Sections of Rockyard Chalcedony (var. Agate) from Burns, OR. Except for the colors, might a section through feces look like this? Source.

In the celebrated novel The Rebel Angels, the famed Canadian author Robertson Davies mentions Ozias Froats, a fictional professor potentially on his way to a Nobel Prize for discovering that everyone’s feces reflect the maker’s personality. He did not have today’s ready recourse to metagenomics (that being still in the future), so he looked at "extremely thin slices of faeces, cut transversely, and examined microscopically and under special light.” He found that each person’s specimen reveals differences in individual temperament. It occurred to me that using this same approach could add another dimension to fecal metagenomics by determining the intra-turd location of individual species. This could readily be visualized using specific fluorescent-labeled antibodies on thin sections—merely a technical elaboration on Froats’ methods.

I know little about how feces are made (“turdopoiesis”) except that it involves dehydration of the colonic contents. In the process, some bacteria are surely displaced mechanically but others perhaps turn on their motility apparatus early in the process to travel to a preferred site, be it the edge or the interior of the creation. Do those species that cling to the mucosal surface or inhabit the mucus also get carried along? Or are they found mainly on the surface of the bolus? And what about prophages, which may well come to life as the result of bacterial stress? Sampling for metagenomics is easier to do with feces than with the insides of the gut, but at present we know little about the geometry of microbe-rich environments and their dynamics.

Froats saw much beauty in his work. He described what he saw in the sections as "splendid cuttings of moss-agate, brecciated agate, an extraordinary beauty reminiscent of ‘that chalcedony which John's Revelation tells us is part of the foundations of the Holy City’." Who knew? Anyhow, with individualized medicine upon us, perhaps standard laboratory tests in the future may include cutting sections of fecal samples for microscopic evaluation. Besides, this may give the person doing the examining unexpected visual pleasures.


Most of the really interesting distributions happen by bacterial intent in the small intestine and long before the stragglers are cast into the pit of the colon for eventual compaction, one might hope, into the disposable turd. The churning must be somewhat distressing to the ones that still wish to find and hang onto an epithelial cell or, when exhausted, rest in the appendix if not hang onto a nearby piece of vegetable remains. Some may be irritating enough (given attachment) to obey signals from on high and try to get rid of everyone of the crowd -- a pat solution. It may be hard for more than a few to find their true position in colonic life.

Elio replies:
A lovely explanation of what really may be going on, intraturdically speaking. We are barely aware of the miracles happening therein.

My late Jack Russell terrier was certain that dog poop was far more valuable than any humans or cats could produce..

Everytime a dog poops in my neighborhood, humans run over and scoop it up in a special bag and deposit it in an important looking receptacle.In contrast, humans go into a closed room and just flush their's away. Almost the same goes for cats, they use a special box but in the end that's just flushed as well.

Dog poop is so valuable that people are even fined for not depositing their dog's leavings appropriately.

Saffy the Dog used to stand over her poop and guard it so it wasn't stolen before I picked it up and deposited it in the special receptacle. Her belief was reinfoced by the treats young dogs got for depositing their poop on the sidewalk where it wouldn't get lost.

It's possible all that collected dog poop does contain some very special chemicals and maybe New York City is balancing its budget by selling them to viable markets around the world. Maybe my Jack Russell was onto something. :-)

Elio replies:
I know you for being so knowledgeable,but didn't know it extended itself to such weighty matters.

While I am unaware of the bacterial distribution in a stool sample, there was a relatively recent study in PLOS NTD regarding the spatial distribution of various helminth eggs within stool.

The noticed no correlation between the center of the stool and the surface, but for some species did see differences in the linear distribution between front and back.

Elio! How wonderful to find a fellow fan of the late, great Robertson Davies ("The Deptford Trilogy" has been very influential to me). And much *more* wonderful to find a microbial, connection to the Microbial Majority within us all.

As I read your essay, I didn't dwell upon the "scat"-ological aspects of it, but was reminded of the myriad micro-micro environments to be found within a grain of soil. Different levels of oxygen, different types of nutrients, different levels of longer a discrete number of niches, but a graduation of so many, blending into one another. So it is with this humble packaging system of the gut, ostensibly used to rid the body of not simply waste microbial, but myriad colonists ("colon"-ists, perhaps?).

It brings me back to William Blake, he of "Auguries of Innocence," who wrote:

"To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour."

As Davies' character Froats can divine the human temperament from such an underappreciated and unexpected source, do the Small Masters see---and live within--- the universe to be found in what we prosaically flush away?

Such an interesting essay. Thank you.

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