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by Lindsay Moran
What if someone told you the key to unlocking one of the mysteries of the human body might reside in your baby's poop? Would you be willing to save and store junior's fecal matter, in the family freezer no less, for the sake of important scientific research?
Luckily for HHMI investigator Patrick O. Brown at the Stanford University School of Medicine, several parents in the Silicon Valley area were willing to do just that, enabling Brown's team of researchers to make startling discoveries about the microbial ecosystem of the human intestine.
Chana Palmer, a former graduate student in Brown's lab, was the logistical mastermind behind what she and her colleagues referred to as the "poop project." She was also the lead author of the paper presenting their findings in PLoS Biology in July 2007.
The recruitment posters that Palmer distributed around the Stanford campus, she admits, "were a little vague about what was actually involved," focusing more on the end goal—an understanding of how bacteria colonize a newborn's digestive system—than on the actual dirty work involved.
Ultimately, Palmer was able to enlist 13 pregnant women—including one woman expecting twins—who were willing to collect their little ones' poop over a period of about a year. Palmer provided each mother with pre-labeled vials specifically designed for stool collection. "Like glass tubes you might find at a bead store," she explains, "but with a sterile spoon attached to the lid. We stressed that there was no need to scoop up the whole poop; just about one-fourth of a teaspoon. Sometimes the mothers gave us a bit too much."
Palmer also offered the families minifreezers if they didn't feel comfortable storing the goods among their frozen vegetables and pizzas. One mother admitted to hiding the samples at the back of the freezer when her mother-in-law, sure to disapprove, came to visit.
Illustration: Peter Arkle