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.”
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