The Next Big Performance Enhancing Drug: Bacteria From Elite Athletes’ Guts?

When Jonathan Scheiman describes his lab as “a lot of crazy shit,” he’s not kidding.

For the last three years, the 35-year-old molecular biologist has been working at Harvard University studying the, um, stool of pro marathoners, ultra- runners, and Olympic rowers. He obtained his first samples by driving around Boston in a Zip- car, picking up deposits from athletes, and storing them in a cooler in the backseat; his colleagues dubbed this his “magic stool bus.”

Scatological humor aside, what Scheiman has uncovered is serious for exercise science: a specific gut bacteria that’s prevalent in elite athletes and has a very special characteristic—it feasts on lactate molecules. Lactate is that burn you feel in your muscles as you’re sucking wind during a grueling workout, and the molecules are also connected to muscle soreness and fatigue. Lactate levels serve as a sensitive biological fuel-gauge for fitness; exercise schlubs hit their lactate thresholds quickly and fade fast, while elites can press on for hours before lactate builds up. Finding a bacteria that can gobble up lactate compounds is no small discovery. “What’s really cool is this is a bug that we’ve found elevated in all of our athletes after strenuous exercise,” Scheiman says. “It seems like a universal phenomenon.”

What Scheiman plans to do with this microorganism sounds straight out of a sci-fi novel. He’s launched a biotech company called FitBiomics with the goal of creating a lactate-eating probiotic for the masses. Once ingested, this supplement could theoretically help any regular Joe better fight fatigue during a workout and boost sports performance. FitBiomics plans to have a commercial probiotic within a year. It sounds like a fairly tall order.

At the lab, Scheiman shows me where his team has stored promising bacterial strains in little plastic tubes, freeze-drying them into an off-white powder for tests on mice. (This bacteria has a name, of course, but Scheiman declined to provide it for proprietary reasons. Let’s call them “champion bacteria.”) One day, he tells me, we all might be sprinkling champion bacteria on our cereal or in our protein shakes, though he admits the product isn’t there quite yet. Right now, he says he’s still asking questions: “Can it optimize your personal training, performance, and recovery? That’s what we’re interested in,” he tells me. “We need to prove these things, but we’re very excited about some of the discoveries that we’ve made.”

The “we” in this statement includes world- renowned biologist George Church. The Church lab at Harvard, where Scheiman is con- ducting his research, is the kind of place where sci-fi ideas become reality. Church himself is known as a pioneering scientist with outsize ideas, such as synthesizing the entire human genome, transplanting pig-grown organs into humans, and bringing back the woolly mammoth. He’s the lead scientific adviser on the FitBiomics board, and together, he and Scheiman hope their future probiotic can make us all perform a bit more like LeBron James.

Scheiman is no run-of-the-mill researcher. He’s a 6’2″ former basketball player who was a walk-on point guard at St. John’s with dreams of playing in the NBA. That background inspired him to look to athletes for a way to increase performance. He decided to start by examining the microbiome, the current hottest field of scientific study.

There’s already preliminary research to link the millions of microorganisms that inhabit our bodies to athleticism. In a series of studies involving Irish professional rugby players, researchers at the University College Cork in Ireland found that fit folks harbored more diverse gut microbes than nonathletes, and reported that these microbes, in turn, appeared to play a role in converting food into energy as well as aiding in tissue repair.

So far, nothing suggests that a bacteria in a probiotic could potentially alter your game on a par with performance-enhancing drugs, says Gregor Reid, a veteran researcher at the Western University in Ontario. But several studies have linked specific bacterial strains with improved recovery times or reduced incidence of illness after an athletic event, and Reid says it’s clear that “in the future, athletic performance and recovery may be aided by microbes.”

The market for such a product could be huge. People spend about $45 billion annually on sports nutrition, and many of us want to up our game. A 2016 survey by the Council for Responsible Nutrition, for instance, found that nearly a third of those taking dietary supplements cited increased energy as a factor.

That certainly opens the door for a fatigue-busting probiotic that could turn a grueling thrice-weekly training regime into an enthusiastic daily one. And yet, there are reasons why probiotics make up less than 1 percent of the sports nutrition industry. There are countless strains of bacteria, and the strain that produces an effect in one person’s gut may not do so in another’s. Bill Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Pub- lic Health, agrees that it’s interesting that athletes have an abundance of this specific lactate-eating bug. But Hanage isn’t convinced there’s enough evidence that trans- planting it from one gut to another will have any effect on performance or recovery for the average exerciser. “It is not impossible,” he says, “but that doesn’t mean it’s probable.”

“That’s good,” Scheiman says, when I put the criticism to him. “Because it means, basically, no one has done what we’re doing.” And the reason that’s true, he’s quick to add, isn’t because it can’t be done. “If I told you we could take a skin cell, turn it into a stem cell, and that turns into a neuron, you’d say, ‘You’re crazy.’ But that’s a real thing. We’re doing it now,” Scheiman says. “Blood trans- plants are a real thing. Organ donation is a real thing, so why can’t we do that with beneficial bacteria?”

We may have the answer soon enough. FitBiomics has already given its champion bacteria safely to mice. They’re setting their sights on the next hurdle right now. The team will need to demonstrate that the bugs function as intended in humans—eating up lactic acid—and then calculate how much of a difference (if any) they have on sports performance. Perhaps it will mean shaving a tenth of a second off a competitive 100-meter race. Or maybe the bacteria will reduce muscle inflammation and allow someone to push hard more easily in back-to-back workouts. It could even be a total placebo, and any boost will come from simply believing these bacteria are effective.

Regardless of the mechanism, Church is convinced FitBiomics’ probiotic will offer something for everyone. “We’re guessing this will be a big hit,” he says. “But there’s only one way to find out.” 

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