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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Getting over incidental coprophagy

Some common coprophagic organisms. One even named in an inadvertent pun. 
Christian Seger of Blue Heron Farms opened his TEDxHouston talk by summarizing Eric Schlosser's book, Fast Food Nation, in one sentence: "There's shit in the meat". The section, in context, actually reads like this:

The medical literature on the causes of food poisoning is full of euphemisms and dry scientific terms: coliform levels, aerobic plate counts, sorbitol, MacConkey agar, and so on. Behind them lies a simple explanation for why eating a hamburger can now make you seriously ill: There is shit in the meat.” 

While succeeding in terrifying Christian Seger, Schlosser demonstrates a remarkable disdain for science, not bothering to connect or understand the words. These aren't just dry unscientific terms - they are completely peripheral to his own disgust response.

Coliforms are bacteria that are short rods in shape. Their levels are used monitoring system to detect bacterial contamination. The coliform we are often interested in is E. coli, which both a human pathogen, friend, and neighbor - depending on the situation. It's also a facultative anaerobe - meaning it can grow with or without oxygen. Aerobic plate counts are way of finding out how many bacteria require oxygen to grow. Sorbitol is a sugar alcohol which is often used in many sugar-free candies and gums - but in the lab, the ability to ferment sorbitol is a key test in classifying the kind of bacteria is present. MacConkey agar is yet another test for classifying bacteria. If you notice - none of these build up logically to his thesis. All it is is the contamination properties of  the disgust response is evoked to imply that there's something dangerous about the food. In truth, there was probably at best a tiny bit of poo in the meat, detectible with the highly sensitive methods of modern microbiology - but in the big picture, insignificant. 

And it turns out that eating shit isn't necessarily so bad. For every human cell in a human body, there are 10 bacterial cells: the health and diversity of this microbial community is every bit central to the health of the human. In certain circumstances, a bacterium called Clostridium difficile (Cdiff in shorthand) can overwhelm the gut system, resulting in diarrhea, even death. Though Cdiff infections can be difficult to treat, one of the most effective is something euphemistically called "fecal transplantation". But that's mostly the ick factor talking - basically, it's just eating shit from a healthy individual to restore the balance in the sick patient's gut. There's a bit more to the preparation than that, but it's remarkably effective, and if you can get over the taboo, cheap as shit. 

It should really come as no surprise: coprophagy is fairly common in the animal kingdom. Heck, in all likelihood, children inherit the founding microbial populations from a bit of the poop from the mother. And it's all right. 

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