Scientists Are Figuring Out How to Get Astronauts to Eat Their Own Poop

Space exploration is hungry work.

Taking food up to space is costly, and growing food in orbit is difficult and time-consuming, which is why scientists are looking at the possibility of converting astronaut poop back into something edible.

The thought may make you want to reach for the sick bag, but such a scheme could mean the difference between exploring the Universe or being stuck on Earth – we need to solve the problem of food on long-term space flights one way or another.

Now a team from Pennsylvania State University has come up with a way of using microbes to break down solid and liquid human waste very quickly, while minimising the chance of any pathogens developing. The substance that’s left could be used in space food.

“It’s a little strange, but the concept would be a little bit like Marmite or Vegemite where you’re eating a smear of ‘microbial goo’,” explains one of the researchers, geoscientist Christopher House.

Using industry standard artificial poop – yes, it exists – the scientists combined it with a select number of microbes in a cylindrical system about 1.22 metres (4 feet) long.

That prompts a process called anaerobic digestion, similar to the one found in our own guts. The original pile of waste gets broken down with no oxygen needed.

But it was the next step that really put the new research ahead of processes we already use: taking nutrients out of the broken down waste and using a microbial reactor to grow a kind of foodstuff out of them.

The methane produced during anaerobic digestion was fed to another microbe, Methylococcus capsulatus, a bacterium already used by the industry to produce supplements or biomass for animal feed.

With 52 percent protein and 36 percent fats, the biomass produced with the methane-gobbling M. capsulatus could provide plenty of nutritional value for astronauts.

To reduce the chances of harmful pathogens developing mid-conversion, the researchers also managed to grow other helpful microbes in alkaline and high temperature environments, where bacteria and viruses struggle to survive.

In fact, the whole system is a little like the compact filters you might find in a fish tank, removing fish waste from the water.

“We used materials from the commercial aquarium industry but adapted them for methane production,” says House.

“On the surface of the material are microbes that take solid waste from the stream and convert it to fatty acids, which are converted to methane gas by a different set of microbes on the same surface.”

During tests, the team removed 49-59 percent of solids in 13 hours, which is much faster than existing waste management systems. However, this isn’t a fully working product yet – just an experiment with different components in isolation.

More research will be needed to tweak the formulas being used and confirm this is actually something that can work in deep space. Meanwhile, other teams are working on ways to tackle the same problem.

For a long trip to somewhere like Mars, taking enough ready meals would take up too much space, and too much weight – more weight means more rocket fuel and more cost.

Growing food through hydroponics (soil-free farming) is an option, but it takes a long time to grow anything, and needs more energy to work, which again puts a strain on the limited resources of a spacecraft.

Ultimately, recycling the waste of our own bodies is likely to play at least some part in keeping astronauts well-fed on long journeys, and there’s already a pee recycling system on board the ISS. Food could be next.

“Imagine if someone were to fine-tune our system so that you could get 85 percent of the carbon and nitrogen back from waste into protein without having to use hydroponics or artificial light,” says House.

“That would be a fantastic development for deep space travel.”

Here’s Why Your Poop Can Be So Freaking Weird on Your Period

You know what we’re talking about.

Most people are pretty open about the “joys” that come with having a period, like cramps, bloating, and sore boobs. But there’s one period side effect people really need to discuss more often, because maybe sharing the burden can at least make the load a little lighter: period poop.

Everyone’s situation is different, but it’s not uncommon for your regular poop habits to take a temporary vacation when you’re on your period, or be suddenly replaced with a whole lot of diarrhea, or both. “Many women do get bowel changes just before or during their period,” Kyle Staller, M.D., a gastroenterologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, tells SELF.

You’ve probably noticed this and dismissed it as just one of those body things, but there’s an actual biological cause you should know about.

“The reason that this happens is largely due to hormones,” says Dr. Staller. Pre-period constipation could be a result of an increase in the hormone progesterone, which starts to increase in the time between ovulation and when you get your period. Progesterone can cause food to move more slowly through your intestines, backing you up in the process.

So what about that diarrhea, though? Hormone-like substances called prostaglandins could be to blame for that. The cells that make up the lining of your uterus (known as endometrial cells), produce these prostaglandins, which get released as the lining of your uterus breaks down right before and during your period. If your body makes a lot of prostaglandins, they can make their way into the muscle that lines your bowels. There, they can cause your intestines to contract just like your uterus and push out fecal matter quickly, causing diarrhea in the process, Ashkan Farhadi, M.D., a gastroenterologist at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center and director of MemorialCare Medical Group’s Digestive Disease Project in Fountain Valley, California, tells SELF. (Fun fact: These prostaglandins are also responsible for those painful cramps you might get every month.)

Of course, this can all vary in different people. But if you notice you experience constipation or diarrhea right around your period like clockwork, this may be why.

Having certain health conditions can also exacerbate period-related bowel changes.

If you struggle with a health condition like endometriosisCrohn’s diseaseirritable bowel syndrome, or ulcerative colitis, having your period can cause a flare-up of your symptoms. Ultimately, the symptoms you experience depend on your condition, Dr. Farhadi says.

For example, if you struggle with Crohn’s disease, which can often cause diarrhea, or IBS-D (a form of IBS that causes people to have diarrhea), your body’s release of prostaglandins during your period may cause you poop even more than usual. But if you suffer from IBS-C (IBS that causes people to have constipation), you may find yourself struggling even more to have a BM on your period as progesterone further slows your bowels’ activity. Since ulcerative colitis can lead to both diarrhea and constipation, you might experience an uptick in either during your period.

And unfortunately endometriosis can lead to pain during bowel movements around your period, Christine Greves, M.D., a board-certified ob/gyn at the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies, tells SELF. Endometriosis is a disease where endometrial tissue that normally grows inside the uterus (or, as is up for debate, tissue similar to endometrial lining) grows outside of the uterus. This tissue can attach to your bowels and start trouble. “You then have bleeding around that area, and that can cause pain when you have a bowel movement,” Dr. Greves explains.

If your poop gets weird on your period, there are a few things you can do to cope.

The most important step is knowing what’s normal for you on your period and doing what you can to minimize any additional triggers. For instance, if you always get diarrhea during your period, and you know that coffee tends to make you poop more, it’s a good idea to cut back a little when you’re actually on your period, Dr. Farhadi says. You can also take Immodium on the first day of your period in anticipation of diarrhea, or carry it with you in case it strikes, he says. If you deal with constipation during your period, try upping your fiber and water intake in the middle of your cycle, when constipation-prompting progesterone levels start rising.

It can also help to pop some non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). NSAIDs, a common class of pain relievers, can block certain enzymes in your body from making prostaglandins. With fewer prostaglandins roaming around, you may get some relief from an achy belly and incessant pooping.

If you’re really having a hard time with poop issues on your period, talk to your doctor. They may be able to recommend next steps or refer you to a specialist who can. Your period is already annoying enough without spending forever on the toilet, either basically pooping water or straining hard to go in the first place.

Why Coffee Makes You Poop

If you feel the need to “go” after your morning joe, you’re among countless others who find that coffee stimulates your gut so much you always need to be close to a bathroom, no matter where you are. According to Today I Found Out, the “caffeine causes you to poop after drinking coffee” idea has been debunked — but there are still several physiological things in play that contribute to your needing to poop after a cuppa.

Bowel movements aside, many in the scientific community have claimed for decades that coffee actually provides multiple health benefits. Today, multiple studies and reviews report that coffee really does have benefits, and may even lower the risks of several types of cancer, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and neurological disorders.

So, whether you’re drinking it simply because you like it, or for perceived health benefits, it’s important to choose the most healthful coffee, just as you would with something you eat. From that point, the best brew is organic coffee, sans cream and sugar. If you do need something to color your coffee, a dollop of whole milk or heavy cream will work — and give you a slight taste of sweetness at the same time.

Avoid flavored coffees and creamers, as the thickeners and whiteners in them are often full of nutrient-suppressing chemicals such as dipotassium phosphate — which, incidentally, can cause diarrhea. Other whiteners may use high-fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated oils, aka trans fats, for flavor-enhancing. Sugar-free brands are no better: they are often laced with chemical-laden sucralose, aspartame or saccharine, all of which are not good for your body.

Your poop could predict your level of belly fat

The microbiome has a lot to answer for.

The diversity of bacterial colonies inside your gut could be directly linked to the level of fat around your body, a new study has found.

The current study is the largest yet to compare microbial diversity against levels of fat in the body, and found evidence that a person’s obesity risk could be influenced by the gut bacteria we inherit from our parents.

Researchers from King’s College London in the UK analysed faecal microbes from the stool samples of 1,313 individuals, and compared this to six measures of obesity, including body mass index (BMI), and upper-to-lower body fat ratios.

A statistical analysis mapping fat markers against faecal bacteria showed the strongest links between microbial diversity and levels of visceral fat (the fat that collects around the abdominal region). In other words, the less diverse the bacteria, the more fat present, and vice versa.

The numbers also showed visceral fat levels to be “highly heritable” in an extended sample of 3,666 twins, even after adjusting for BMI.

“This study has shown a clear link between bacterial diversity in faeces and markers of obesity and cardiovascular risk, particularly for visceral fat,” said lead researcher Michelle Beaumont.

We should note the scientists haven’t determined any kind of causation here, but with excessive visceral fat levels closely linked to heart problems and other metabolic diseases, anything we can do to reduce it could help.

As we learn more about our internal microbiomes, we’re starting to understand more about its role in our health and how important maintaining a diverse microbiome could be to processing food and fighting off disease.

Previous research has found our microbiome seems to contribute to chronic fatigue syndromedepression and anxiety, and stroke risk.

In the long term, researcher hope to be able to improve people’s health by treating the microbiome directly. Previous studies have shown how faecal transplants in mice can effectively ‘reprogram’ bacterial colonies in the stomach and eliminate certain superbugs along the way.

There’s so much potential here, that researchers are now testing the technique out on humans through freeze-dried tablets of poop designed to encourage a healthy microbiome.

But in terms of this study and the link between gut bacteria and belly fat, the researchers acknowledge it’s still early days.

“Further scientific investigation is needed to understand how precisely our gut microbes can influence human health,” said one of the team, Jordana Bell, “and if interventions such as faecal transplants can have safe, beneficial, and effective impacts on this process.”

NASA Set to Burn Astronauts’ Poop in space.

The US space agency NASA has released some interesting data about several of its year-long “human research” programmes on the International Space Station (ISS) — and its astronaut Scott Kelly’s poop and the effect of space on the waste is one of them.

During his 342-day-long stay on the orbiting laboratory, Kelly will produce nearly 180 pounds (82 kg) of poop.

“The waste will be discharged at intervals from the space station and will burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere and look like shooting stars,” NASA said in an infographic release on Monday.

The mission, which also includes Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko, aims to better understand effects of long-term living in space on humans.

Kelly will also drink 730 litres of recycled urine and sweat during his term aboard the ISS.

The info-graphic shows the effect on space on NASA astronaut Scott Kelly’s body. | Photo: NASA


“Astronaut Scott jelly will see 10,944 sunrises and sunsets during the ‘Year in Space’ mission. You will see 684,” the US space agency said.

Kelly will exercise more than 700 hours during his year-long mission to keep his bones, muscles and heart strong.

He will also run about 648 miles on a specialised treadmill during the “Year in Space” mission.

“At that rate, it would take him more than 216,000 years to run to Mars, which is 140-million miles from Earth,” the infographic read.

About 383 experiments will be conducted during Kelly’s stay.

To get the same radiation exposure that astronaut Kelly will experience during the “Year in Space” mission, you have to fly from Los Angeles to New York 5,250 times, the infographic read.

One man’s poop is another’s medicine .

It’s the middle of the day for Eric, a 24-year-old research assistant at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and nature is calling.

Eric leaves his job and hops a train. Then a bus. Then he walks some more. He passes countless toilets, and he needs to use them, but he doesn’t.

Eventually, Eric arrives at a nondescript men’s room 30 minutes away from MIT. A partition separates two toilets. There’s a square-tiled floor like in any public restroom. It’s unremarkable in every way, with one exception: A pit stop here can save lives.

Eric hangs a plastic collection bucket down inside the toilet bowl and does his business. When he’s finished, he puts a lid on the container, bags it up and walks his stool a few doors down the hall to OpenBiome, a small laboratory northwest of Boston that has developed a way to turn poop from extremely healthy people into medicine for really sick patients.

A lab technician weighs Eric’s “sample.” Over the past 2½ months, Eric has generated 10.6 pounds of poop over 29 visits, enough feces to produce 133 treatments for patients suffering fromClostridium difficile, an infection that kills 15,000 Americans a year and sickens half a million.

Christina Kim, a lab technician at OpenBiome, weighs Eric's poop donation.

To donate, Eric had to pass a 109-point clinical assessment. There is a laundry list of factors that would disqualify a donor: obesity, illicit drug use, antibiotic use, travel to regions with high risk of contracting diseases, even recent tattoos. His stools and blood also had to clear a battery of laboratory screenings to make sure he didn’t have any infections.

After all that screening, only 3% of prospective donors are healthy enough to give. “I had no idea,” he says about his poop. “It turns out that it’s fairly close to perfect.”

And that, unlike most people’s poop, makes Eric’s worth money. OpenBiome pays its 22 active donors $40 per sample. They’re encouraged to donate often, every day if they can. Eric has earned about $1,000.

“It takes us a lot of time and effort to find these donors,” says OpenBiome’s research director, Mark Smith. “When we do find them, we want to keep them as engaged as possible and really want to compensate them for their time.”

Why is Eric’s poop so valuable?

A hundred trillion bacteria live inside your gut, some good, some bad. When patients take antibiotics for infections, sometimes they fail to work; good bacteria gets killed off while bad bacteria — C. difficile — grows unchecked.

The life-saving bacteria from the guts of people like Eric can help. When their healthy microbes are placed inside the intestines of a sick person they can chase out harmful C. difficile bacteria. It’s called a fecal transplant. The treatments are administered bottom-up, through a colonoscopy, or top-down, through a tube in the nose.

OpenBiome's fecal transplants are used in 350 hospitals in 47 states.

OpenBiome’s poop donors have created about 5,000 treatments, and the organization says the results have been stunning. Stinky human waste is an astonishingly simple cure: 90% of the patients get better.

“They’ll actually have this really transformational experience where they’ll be going to the bathroom 20 times a day and then have normal bowel movements sort of immediately or the next day,” Smith says.

The organization’s fecal transplants cost $385 to purchase and are providing a treatment to more than 350 hospitals in 47 states.

At OpenBiome’s lab, technician Christina Kim, working under a fume hood that sucks up odors, pulls the lid off Eric’s collection bucket and demonstrates how she turns poop into the life-saving treatment.

“It’s nice that this room is actually closed off because this is where the smelly part happens,” she says.

She examines the consistency of today’s offering. A nearby chart has descriptions and illustrations for seven types of stools. It was developed by a hospital in Bristol, England, as a visual guide.

Not all poop is acceptable.

Types one or two, defined by the Bristol Stool Chart as “like nuts” or “lumpy,” are too dry to process into a treatment.

If a donor’s stool is “mushy” or “watery” — that’s a type six or seven — then it can’t be used because it could be a sign the donor has a gastrointestinal infection.

The perfect poop is type three, which is “like a sausage but with cracks on its surface;” type four, which is “like a sausage or snake, smooth and soft;” or type five, “soft blobs with clear-cut edges (passed easily).”

“It’s actually an established medical chart,” Kim says with a chuckle. “It’s very important.”

Maybe it was the hot sauce he used on his quinoa and cheddar cheese casserole last night, or the banana and peanut butter he ate with a bowl of bran flakes and almond milk for breakfast, but Eric’s stool is type five, just barely acceptable for processing.

Kim scoops the feces into a clear plastic bag and adds a saline solution. For two minutes the bag sloshes around inside a machine called the “jumbo mix.” The fiber in Eric’s stool is filtered out, and what’s left behind is a liquid teaming with helpful bacteria.

With a pipette, Kim transfers the watery remnants of Eric’s poop into 250 ml plastic bottles. On average, one stool donation fills four, but today Eric’s impressive half-pound sample fills seven. One bottle equals one treatment.

The 133 treatments Eric has provided won’t be distributed until he’s passed a secondary healthy screening. For now, they sit frozen in quarantine inside a giant freezer.

Most donors head on their way after handing over their sample, but during today’s visit Eric asks if he can see the treatments he helped create.

Cool air blasts his face as Kim opens the freezer. His jaw drops at the sight of his icy brown bottles, which look like frozen chocolate milkshakes. The bacteria inside them is still alive, cryogenically preserved at -112°F.

Eric, a poop donor for OpenBiome, looks at bottles of frozen fecal transplants he helped create.

“That’s fantastic! Holy cow!” Eric says, beaming. “It’s unreal. I never thought I would be staring at my poop frozen in a freezer destined to help people across the country. It’s really cool.”

But did he do it for the money? The ridiculously easy money?

“Not at all,” he says. “It’s a nice perk, of course.”

If you’re inspired to donate like Eric, you have to live in the Boston area. And you may have to wait. Some 6,000 people have already signed up. OpenBiome usually invites about 50 people for interviews every week.

“It’s easier to get into MIT and Harvard than it is to get enrolled as one of our donors,” Smith says. “A lot of our donors are pretty excited to take something they do every day otherwise and save people’s lives with it.”

NASA wants to turn astronauts poop into food.

The US space agency has funded researchers to find out how to recycle human excreta into food that can help astronauts sustain on deeper space missions, including Mars.

The researchers at Clemson University in South Carolina will receive $200,000 a year for up to three years to achieve this task, the US space agency said in a statement.

Using urine and breathed-out carbon dioxide as the building blocks to create useful aboard items, the team is genetically engineering yeast to produce things that astronauts may need.

“A particular strain of yeast can be genetically manipulated to create polymers, or plastics, used for 3D printing, as well as Omega 3s, which lower heart disease risk, and protect skin and hair,” Mark Blenner, professor at Clemson, was quoted as saying in a Quartz report.

Nitrogen is needed to grow the yeast and is abundant in human urine.

Yeast also feeds on fatty acids which certain algae can create out of carbon.

Blenner’s system would grow yeast that could take those lipids and nitrogen and turn them into plastics and Omega 3s.

The grant was one of eight given to universities around the US, all of which focus on “innovative, early stage technologies that will address high-priority needs of America’s space program”, NASA said.

“These early career researchers will provide fuel for NASA’s innovation engine,” said Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate.

Earlier this month, the six astronauts currently living on the International Space Station (ISS) became the first people to eat food grown at the Veggie plant growth system aboard the orbiting laboratory in space.

The fresh “Outredgeous” red romaine lettuce that accompanied the crew’s usual freeze-dried fare, however, is far from the first crop grown on a space station.

As the space agency eyes deep-space missions like a trip to an asteroid or Mars, space farming becomes less of a novelty and more of a necessity.

Plants will be an integral part of any life-support system for extended missions, providing food and oxygen and processing waste.

Significant further advances will be necessary, and each of them promises to bring new innovations to agriculture here on the Earth.

NASA is planning to land humans on Mars by 2030 and is investing in ideas to figure out ways for astronauts to be more self-sufficient on long-term space missions.

Why Should You Squat To Poop?

Experts have pointed out that the squatting position is more natural and can help avoid colon disease, constipation, hemorrhoids, pelvic floor issues and similar ailments. In fact in Ayurvedic traditions, elimination of poop is integral to one’s well-being and the squatting position is called as ‘malasana’ in yoga.

People can control their defecation, to some extent, by contracting or releasing the anal sphincter. But the muscle can’t maintain continence on its own. The body also relies on a bend between the rectum and the anus. When we’re standing up, the extent of this bend, called the anorectal angle, is about 90 degrees, which puts upward pressure on the rectum and keeps feces inside. In a squatting posture, the bend straightens out, like a kink ringed out of a garden hose, and defecation becomes easier.

Proponents of squatting argue that conventional toilets produce an anorectal angle that’s ill-suited for defecation. By squatting, they say, we can achieve ‘complete evacuation’ of the colon, ridding our bowels of disease-causing toxins. Squatting does provide health benefit in the form of hemorrhoid prevention.

Hemorrhoids may be brought on by pregnancy, obesity, and receiving anal sex. It affects as many as half of all Americans by age 50. But, the main cause of hemorrhoids is usually straining during bowel movement. Straining increases the pressure in your abdomen, causing the veins that line your anus to swell. In hemorrhoid patients, those veins stay swollen and sometimes bleed. In theory, squatting might stave off hemorrhoids by making defecation easier, reducing the need to strain and decreasing abdominal pressure.

Your Poop Is Unique: Gut Viruses Different in Every Person

Like a fingerprint, the virus communities in the human gut are unique to each individual, a new study on poop DNA suggests. Even identical twins have very different collections of viruses colonizing their lower intestines.
This is in contrast to bacterial communities, which are similar in related individuals, the researchers say. (While bacteria can live and reproduce on their own, viruses consist of genetic material packaged inside a capsule structure and can only reproduce inside a host.)
The study sheds light on the largely unexplored world of viruses living in the lower intestine. Most of these “friendly” viruses, which don’t cause diseases, make their home inside bacteria already living in the gut. These viruses are thought to influence the activities of gut microbes, which among their other benefits, allow us to digest certain components of our diets, such as plant-based carbohydrates, that we can’t digest on our own.

In recent years, a number of projects worldwide have been initiated to catalog the microbes that live in and on the human body, with the goal of understanding the relationship between microbial communities (including viruses and bacteria) and overall health and disease.
The new research, published this week in the journal Nature, suggests such projects should also focus on the viruses that co-exist and co-evolve with bacteria and other microbes that normally live in our bodies. For instance, these viruses might act as barometers for the overall health of the gut microbial community as it responds to challenges or recovers after an illness or therapeutic intervention.
Studying stool
Most of the information scientists have about viruses that live together with bacteria comes from studies of their outdoor habitats, like the ocean, said study researcher Jeffrey Gordon of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “There, the lifestyle of viruses can be described as [a] ‘predator-prey dynamic’ with a continuous evolutionary battle of genetic change affecting viruses and their microbial hosts,” he said.
To learn more about the viruses in the human gut, the scientists turned to poop.
Gordon and his colleagues decoded the DNA isolated from viruses in stool samples provided by four pairs of identical twins and their mothers. The investigators sequenced the viral DNA — or viromes — from samples collected at three different times over a one-year period, which enabled them to track any fluctuations in viral communities over time.
They also sequenced the DNA of all the microbes (including bacteria) — the microbiome — in the samples, which allowed them to compare the viral and bacterial communities in the lower intestines.
Remarkably, more than 80 percent of the viruses in the stool samples had not been previously discovered. “The novelty of the viruses was immediately apparent,” Gordon said.
The intestinal viromes of identical twins were about as different as the viromes of unrelated individuals. However, family members shared a certain degree of the same bacteria species.
Within each individual, the viromes remained stable and persisted over the one-year study. This also differed from the bacterial communities, which experienced greater fluctuations.
In other words, the viruses in the stool specimens did not appear to exhibit the predator-prey lifestyle seen in environment communities, Gordon said. Instead of trying to kill each other, the bacteria and viruses appear to be engaged in a mutually beneficial relationship — the bacteria provide a way for the viruses to reproduce and the viruses may provide extra genes that benefit their bacterial hosts.
Future outlook
The researchers now plan to study the viromes in the developing intestines of infant twins – identical and fraternal – from different families to determine how viruses first “set up shop” in the gut ecosystem and how they are influenced by the nutritional status of their human hosts.
In addition, to better understand viral lifestyles throughout the length of the intestine, they are introducing these viruses into mice that only contain human gut microbes.
The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health, among others.

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