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Why are scientists creating a bank for human poo?

You may have heard about the underground seed vault in Norway that preserves crop diversity. Well now scientists are launching one for poo. Here’s why

You may have heard about the underground seed vault in Norway that preserves crop diversity. Well now scientists are launching one for poo. Here’s why

We’ve all encountered the horror of the frost-encrusted mystery box buried deep in the freezer. Spare a thought, then, for microbiologist Adrian Egli.

Instead of last week’s leftovers, Egli’s deep freeze contains poo. Lots of poo. 

Collecting and storing deep-frozen stool samples sent to him from as far away as Peru, Ethiopia and Ecuador, Egli is building a kind of Noah’s ark – but for microbes, the trillions of bacteria which live in our guts. In doing so he hopes to spare them – and mankind – from a potential existential crisis.

“We’re just starting to understand how important microbes are for our wellbeing, our health and diseases,” said Egli, director of the Institute of Medical Microbiology in Zurich, Switzerland. 

“Due to our lifestyles, processed foods and the consumption of antibiotics, there is a rapid decline in microbial diversity, especially in western societies. We need to save this biodiversity now, before it is too late.”

Egli’s idea was inspired by the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a secure back-up store of over a million seed samples buried deep in the Arctic permafrost, with the goal of preserving crop diversity.

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Western societies are seeing a rapid decline in microbial diversity. Image: Dan Freeman

In Egli’s Microbiota Vault, the aim is to preserve the microbes that live inside and around us – collectively known as the ‘microbiome’.

Research increasingly points to their pivotal role in both our physical and mental wellbeing, but poor diets, urbanisation and our reliance on antibiotics mean microbiota diversity is under threat. And with it, potentially, our own health, or even our survival.

Storing samples for posterity means, for example, that long-lost bacteria might one day be revived, cultured and used to treat disease.

The Microbiota Vault currently stores some 3,000 stools, mainly from Switzerland but also from Puerto Rico and remote pastoralist communities in Ethiopia (main picture).

There’s a rapid decline in microbial diversity in western societies. We must save it before it’s too late

The pilot project, which ends next year, is exploring the best methods of storing, thawing and reviving microbial cultures.

Egli’s ultimate goal is to collect poo from every corner of the planet. For that, he is going to need a bigger freezer.

“The Microbiota Vault will provide a safe and trustworthy biobank to store hundreds of thousands of microbiome samples from around the world,” says Egli. 

“We will have well-established protocols to store the samples for decades to come and provide a network for microbiome education, research and development for the whole world.”

Main image: Hadynyah/iStock

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