A microbiologist who suddenly found herself winning bike races after getting a faecal transplant from a competitive cyclist says that this will soon become an area where athletes seek to gain an advantage. “I think I can say with confidence that bacterial doping – call it poop doping, if you must – is coming soon,” said Lauren Petersen.
Petersen works at The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine in Farmington, Connecticut, investigating he human microbiome – the collection of microorganisms which live on us. She is particularly interested in the gut microbiology of cyclists.
Speaking to nourishbalancethrive.com she explained: “All those microbes in your gut are performing amazing metabolic functions that your own body actually can't do – so, breaking down a lot of the different fibres and resistant starches and things like that – and they're providing all sorts of very important metabolites for us, certain vitamins, short chain fatty acids. Without your microbes, you'd be very, very unhealthy.”
Bicycling.com reports that Petersen contracted Lyme Disease when she was 11 and after suffering for more than a decade, she had her gut sequenced by the American Gut Project. “I had no microbes to help me break down food, and I had picked up bugs in the lab where I was working because my system was so weak and susceptible.”
The repeated doses of antibiotics had pretty much wiped out her entire gut microbiome. “I ended up with pretty bad chronic fatigue syndrome, really bad issues with my stomach – I mean, just the ability to digest food,” she said.
Petersen said that she then underwent a faecal transplant from a competitive cyclist – a procedure she carried out herself.
“In 24 hours after finishing antibiotics, I did the whole thing, which is very, very unpleasant. It's quick. It's simple. And within a month, I started feeling a lot better. Even in the literature, they say if you're going to do this kind of procedure, it takes between two to four months for you to really feel the effects. So, within a month, I was starting to eat normally again. And then within two months, I got back on my bike and the effects there were instantaneous.”
She said of her first ride: “After doing like two hours that day, the next day I got out and I'm like, let's just see how I feel. And I got on my bike and I could just do it right away again.”
She went from training twice a week to five days a week and after a month had “more energy than I knew what to do with.”
Six months after the transplant, she did her first enduro race and finished “third or fourth”. The one after that, she won – and she says she’s been winning consistently ever since.
“I wondered if I had gotten my microbiome from a couch potato, not a racer, if I would I be doing so well,” she said. "Then it made me wonder what the best possible microbiome for a racer would be.”
Petersen founded the Athlete Microbiome Project and is now collecting stool and saliva samples from professional cyclists in an attempt to understand how their microbiomes may differ from those of the general population.
She cites as one example Prevotella, a microorganism that she received in her own transplant, which is apparently almost always seen in elite racers but in less than 10 per cent of non-athletes.
But there is plenty more to study than that. “You have a certain community of microbes. Maybe you're missing a few that are really good at breaking down pasta or certain kinds of fibres because that leads to better energy transfer.”
So an obvious shortcut is to import them. But even so – a faecal transplant?
“I'm sure it will be in pill form,” she concludes. “Whether you swallow it or it goes up the other end that will be the question.”