What is ‘Poop Doping’? Reading Between the Headlines

You may have read about the intense intrigue behind what the media is calling “poop doping”, a catchy headline which refers to a project led by research scientist Lauren Petersen called the Athlete Microbiome Project, but it’s not so scandalous as headlines suggest.

Intrigue surrounds what the media is calling “poop doping”, a catchy headline that refers to a project led by research scientist Lauren Petersen called the Athlete Microbiome Project.

For the project, Petersen collected the stool samples of 35 cyclists to examine how athletes microbiomes function differently than non-athletes and to identify the species that make up each individual’s gut. She assessed that high level athletes share striking similarities in their highly diverse gut microbiomes. Her results first appeared in The Scientist in their report “Athletes’ Microbiomes Differ From Non-Athletes” in which she stated her results “shine light on a handful of microorganisms that apparently separate the guts of elite athletes from average people.”

Prior to establishing the project, Petersen self-administered a fecal transplant test from a stool sample that was donated to her by an elite cyclist. The transplant began as a way to introduce more good bacteria into her gut after years of being on and off antibiotics due to Lyme disease she contracted when she was 11. Her positive results are what led her to focus on the project while finishing her PhD.

In Bicycling’s article “Is Poop Doping the Next Big Thing,” Petersen described how a few months after the transplant she noticed a significant improvement in her athletic ability, she “was training five days a week (up from her usual two)” and she “started enduro racing, and was soon placing and even winning in the pro field.” She theorized that this had something to do with her donor being an elite cyclist, she told Bicycling “I wondered if I had gotten my microbiome from a couch potato, not a racer, if I would I be doing so well…” She told the Scientist similarly; “I had no more fatigue. I could ride my bike hard three days in a row, no problem.” She was driven to understand more about the gut microbiome of athletes versus non-athletes.

Petersen has only analyzed her own fecal transplant, she has not reported on the results of any other. She also advised against DIY fecal transplants, as mentioned in the Bicycling article, “…Petersen in no way supports ‘at home’ fecal transplants— she simply thinks there’s room to improve our probiotic and prebiotic knowledge,” her experience is the only reference to any experimental “poop doping”. Following the Bicycling article, headlines from the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and Denver Post all ran the same new catch phrase.

Lauren Petersen told The Scientist on June 1st that her results “shine light on a handful of microorganisms that apparently separate the guts of elite athletes from average people.” Photo: Sayan Nath

It’s worth noting that Petersen’s study is neither published nor peer reviewed, and though there are many publicly published studies that do boast the benefits of a diverse gut microbiome, there are few (if none) specific to cyclists. Although she acknowledges the limitations of her small study, she tells Bicycling that she is optimistic about the near future, “We’ve got data that no one has ever seen before, and we’re learning a lot. And I think I can say with confidence that bacterial doping— call it poop doping, if you must— is coming soon.”

So far some in the science community haven spoken of the need tread lightly on the subject. In the Post’s June 21st article, microbiologist Jonathan Eisen from the University of Davis told the organization, “The fact that the microbiomes [in elite athletes and average people] are different is interesting, but it doesn’t mean they caused any athletic performance benefits.” He also wondered whether a fecal transplant would work for everybody the way it did for Petersen, “In general, it seems more likely that if you wanted to optimize someone’s microbiome for athletic perform, it’s going to have to be a personalized optimization, I think there’s potential for manipulation of the microbiome to impact athletics performance, but we’re a long ways away.”

A similar study conducted prior to Petersen’s was done with rugby players in Ireland headed by Orla O’Sullivan, a computational biologist at the Teagasc Food Research Centre in County Cork (Gut). O’Sullivan’s studies highlighted similarities and differences to Petersens – it did not report on the similar presecene of a strain called Prevotella that Petersen noted in the stool analysis of her highest performing athletes, but it did show similarities in “lower Bacteroides and higher Akkermansia” levels. O’Sullivan research concluded that it is too soon to say why these differences exist in microbial diversity between professional athletes to that of more sedentary subject, she told the Scientist, “it’s all associations; we haven’t figured out the cause”.

There may be a correlation between activity level and microbial diversity, but it remains to be seen if “poop doping”, or a bacterial fecal transplant, is capable of the same gains as the blood doping it’s being compared to, and it’s way too early to tell. Although Bicycling’s article positioned Ms. Petersen’s findings as the future of performance enhancement, she still has the job of convincing her peers in the scientific community that this study is publish worthy. Until then, we hope to see the term “poop doping” dumped like a fecal transplant, and we’ll keep drinking our Kombucha.


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