Poop is important to health research, but does it need another name?
June 26, 2019
Poop by Any Other Name….. What’s in a name?
The phrase is taken from Romeo and Juliet, one of the best-known love stories in literature. The two lovers are confessing their feelings at the balcony of Juliet’s parents home (it is one of the most romantic scenes in the play). Juliet says the quote as she struggles with the conflict between her feelings for Romeo and her knowledge that his family, the Montagues, is an enemy of her family, the Capulets.
Essentially, Juliet questions whether a label, such as a family name, is important. The same could be said in science. Take the word “poop.” It turns out that what people and all living things leave behind is important to study our health.
“The waste we flush away can tell us a lot about what our bodies are up to, including how healthy we are, what we are eating and even if there’s a virus present,” said Matthew Redinbo, Ph.D., Professor of chemistry, biochemistry and microbiology at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“And the field of human health is beginning to appreciate more and more that the trillions of bacteria cells that live in your intestines really make a huge difference into how your body functions.”
And there are other important things to discover in excrement than just studying bacteria to gauge a patient’s health. The bacteria in the gut are also involved with the metabolism of medicines. Measuring the activity of enzymes can help predict how a patient will respond to certain medicines.
Finding the perfect name
However in studying those enzymes, Dr. Aadra Bhatt, assistant professor of medicine at UNC-Chapel Hill, realized there is no official word for the study of human excrement. The word “feces” is used, but the term in Latin literally means dregs, the stuff at the bottom of a wine cask or beer barrel. So Bhatt contacted Luca Grillo, an associate professor of classics at the University of Notre Dame. Grillo used to teach at UNC-Chapel Hill.
The three researchers worked together to find the best Latin word that could be used in a professional and scientific context in the experimental study of, well, poop. Their solution was to create the word “in fimo, ” which comes from the Latin word “fimus”. It translates into English as filth, dirt, dung, and manure.
“To say I conduct research on human excrement can put someone off,” explained Grillo. “But if I say ”in fimo” and then explain, there is a more dignified and elegant claim to the term.”
The trio published an article about “in fimo” in the journal Gastroenterology. It’s the most prominent journal in the field of gastrointestinal disease. The article has garnered wide spread attention and praise. Scholars in the U.S. and in Europe have used it. The new word has won praise at scientific conferences. So, what’s in a name? It turns out that when studying “in fimo,” there’s a lot in a name.
Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on Sci NC, a broadcast and online science series.