ISAPP board members look back in time to respond to Benjamin Franklin’s suggestion on how to improve “natural discharges of wind from our bodies”

Benjamin Franklin, born in 1706, was a multi-talented politician and scientist best known for his discoveries related to electricity. Historians say he was scientifically pragmatic—aiming not just to advance theories, but to solve the most vexing problems of the day.

In 1780, when Franklin read about the intellectual contests being held by The Royal Academy of Brussels (today known as the Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Science and the Arts – KVAB), he took it upon himself to write an amusing letter that contained a suggestion for an important scientific challenge: “To discover some Drug wholesome & not disagreable, to be mix’d with our common Food, or Sauces, that shall render the natural Discharges of Wind from our Bodies, not only inoffensive, but agreable as Perfumes.”

Over two centuries later, the organization was prompted for a reply. Writer Brian Van Hooker wrote to the KVAB: ‘I am a writer at MEL Magazine and I am working on a piece about a letter that Benjamin Franklin sent to your organization’s predecessor, the Royal Academy of Brussels, 240 years ago. The letter was entitled “Fart Proudly,” and I’m reaching out to see if anyone at your organization might like to issue a reply to Mr. Franklin’s letter’.

Since ISAPP board member Prof. Sarah Lebeer (University of Antwerp, Belgium) is a KVAB Belgian Young Academy alumna with microbiome knowledge, Bert Seghers from the Academy asked her to help draft a reply. However, since the gut microbiome is not her main area of expertise, she consulted her fellow ISAPP board members. For example, Bob Hutkins, author of a popular ISAPP blog post on intestinal gas, immediately sent her a paper entitled Identification of gases responsible for the odour of human flatus and evaluation of a device purported to reduce this odour with the comment: “The next time a graduate student complains about their project, refer them to this paper and the 5th paragraph of the methods”—a paragraph that describes how scientists in the experiment were tasked with rating the odor of flatus and differentiating between the different smells of sulphur-containing gases.

But it was the answer of Prof. Glenn Gibson (University of Reading, UK) that was incorporated into the ‘formal’ reply to Franklin’s suggestion. “Your suggested topic on improving flatulence odour is amusing, but indeed also very relevant. An outstanding answer to the contest as you formulate it would be ground-breaking,” wrote Profs. Lebeer and Gibson. They noted that gases in the intestine are mainly released by the bacteria living there—but especially the sulphate reducing bacteria contribute to the “traditional” smell due to their production of noxious H2S —and that advances in probiotic and prebiotic science could one day lead to reduced (and “nicer smelling”) gas production by switching hydrogen gas production to methane or even acetate and away from H2S.

Brian Van Hooker summarized: “In other words, Mr. Franklin, they’re working on it and, perhaps sometime within the next 240 years, your dream of non-smelly farts might just come true.”

The KVAB response to Benjamin Franklin concluded: “Your letter is a ripple through time. It may not surprise you that scientific questions can have effects across decades and even centuries. This idea remains the tacit hope of many scientists working together for the progress of humanity. We have not yet invented a reverse time machine, but we send our answer along with your question forward in time, hoping that it may inspire future scientists as your question inspired us.”

Read the MEL Magazine article here.

Read more about gut microbiota & intestinal gas here.

stool sample for lab

Microbiome Analysis – Hype or Helpful?

September 2017. By Karen Scott, PhD, Rowett Institute, University of Aberdeen, Scotland.

Since we have realized that we carry around more microbial than human cells, and that these microbial inhabitants are important to maintain our health, searching for the bacterial species that are implicated in causing disease has become the holy grail of microbiology. However, to understand which bacteria are unnaturally present or absent in a disease state, we first have to understand what constitutes normal. This is hampered by the fact that we are all different – and our microbial communities are also all different. In fact, the faecal bacterial community in samples taken months apart from one person will be identifiable as coming from that specific healthy adult, but the community will be quite distinct from samples from any other healthy adult. In the same way, the microbial community of two individuals suffering from the same disease will be different.

Despite these differences, scientists have managed to establish some facts over the past 15 years. Too many Proteobacteria, which includes Enterobacteria and E.coli, in your large intestine is not generally good news. Firstly, it means that conditions in the large intestine are probably not as anaerobic as they should be. Secondly, an expansion in these populations usually means a decline in something else – after all food and places to live are finite resources. Bacterial diversity in the adult intestine is also important. The main factor that has been found across many different diseases is that bacterial diversity is lower in diseased individuals than their healthy counterparts. This does not necessarily mean that a low diversity is causing the disease, as various features of the disease (including any antibiotic therapy, inflammation, decreased or increased transit time) may all themselves affect the diversity of the microbiota.

Although scientists have not succeeded in defining a ‘healthy microbiota,’ there is an increasing trend to get your microbiome tested. Entrepreneurial microbiome companies are bombarding us with offers to “send in a small sample and find out about your gut microbiota”. All of course, for a ‘reasonable’ price. So, should you?

This really depends why you want to know, and what level of detail of analysis is being offered. Remember the orders of taxonomy? Kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species.  Some companies identify the bacteria in your faeces only to the phylum level. This is a taxonomic level above the level needed to differentiate mammals and fish (these are ‘classes’). If you told someone that there were more fish in the Indian Ocean than mammals would this be a surprise? It would be such an expected fact it would be meaningless. This is similar to describing the microbiota at a phylum level – Bacteroidetes numbers versus Firmicutes numbers. Such numbers are meaningless. However, continuing the fish analogy, if you said that there were more mackerel than tuna in the North Atlantic Ocean this becomes a bit more meaningful. The fisherman immediately knows what type of fish he is more likely to catch, and perhaps even which net to use. The same is true of the microbiome. Telling someone that he/she has a lot of Enterobacteria and few Roseburia is actually useful as we know from studies that this represents an abnormal balance of bacteria and something should be done to redress this. Yet the bottom line health consequence of this abnormal balance of bacteria remains to be determined. So getting your gut microbiome sequenced could be useful – depending on what level of information you will receive, and what you are prepared to do about it.

And so we come to the next problem. Having established what your gut microbiota is, how are you going to make it better? And will that make YOU better? At the moment scientists don’t really have a good answer to these questions. Specific prebiotics can certainly be useful to increase the numbers of some bacteria generally assumed to be beneficial – such as Bifidobacterium, Faecalibacterium prausnitzii and even Roseburia species. But it is not really clear what the exact health benefits of such an increase in bacterial numbers would be. Health claims on prebiotics are currently limited to ‘improve intestinal transit’ and ‘lower the glycaemic response’. If you found out that your microbiota had a low diversity, increasing the variety of foods in your diet, in particular the fibre component, could certainly improve this. Our gut microbiota basically relies on our undigested food to survive, so providing a greater amount and more types of food containing fibre and prebiotics will definitely encourage populations of diverse bacteria to expand. In addition to improving digestive health, fibre fermentation by gut bacteria also results in the production of microbial products that have been shown to have health benefits.

So by all means get your gut microbiome analyzed if you want to, but perhaps instead, save your money and just increase your prebiotic and fibre consumption, which will increase levels of the potentially beneficial bacteria that are already there in your gut.