Why you should care

Our microbes outnumber our cells. We should at least be on speed-dating terms with them.

Vacation souvenirs can be crappy, but rarely are they actual crap. Unless, that is, you’re MIT microbiologist Ilana Brito, who’s glad to fling open a freezer at her lab to showcase her treasured turds from Fiji. It’s shelved with rows of frosty, neatly labeled tubes, each coated on the inside with green-brown sludge.

Four years ago, as part of a postdoc research project, Brito maxed out her credit cards and headed to the South Pacific — not for the beaches, but for the bacteria. And the other microbes inhabiting the poop, spit, skin and living environments of 300 Fijians in remote villages. Those little buggers turn out to be pretty important. It might make you squirm, but trillions of these tiny organisms live in (and on) each of us — somewhere between three and 10 times the number of human cells we have. The creepy-crawlies apparently play a critical role in keeping you healthy, from digesting and metabolizing food to keeping harmful microscopic invaders at bay.

Brito wanted to know how microbes hook up with humans, and how they and their genes move around human communities. The work hasn’t yet led to earth-shattering discoveries; in fact, it hasn’t been published yet. (Science can move slowly.) But Brito, herself a remarkable survivalist who runs adventure races under brutal conditions, has one paper accepted at the prestigious journal Nature Biotechnology and a second under consideration at another major publication. She was also just named an assistant professor in Cornell’s biomedical engineering department. All at age 35. And mostly thanks to studying shit.

To get to Fiji, Brito cobbled together funds from a small fellowship, the Fiji ministry of health and her credit cards.

Microbes maladjusted to modern lifestyles have been implicated in everything from obesity and diabetes to neurological conditions. So a better understanding of the microbiome might reorder how we think about and treat disease. For instance, it might be possible to lose weight or treat infection by boosting communities of beneficial bugs in your guts via icky-sounding but effective “fecal transplants.” We’ve seen early hints of this shift already — for instance, in the 1980s when researchers discovered that stomach ulcers are actually caused by the common gut microbe H. pylori and not stress or bad diet.

Thing is, most of what we know about the microbiome comes from developed areas like the U.S., Europe and Japan, which can afford to pay for the research, says Maria Gloria Dominguez-Bello, a microbiologist at New York University School of Medicine. “But what about the rest of the world?” she asks.

Brito had the same question. Early in her postdoc career, Brito proposed to go to Fiji and almost single-handedly collect samples from 300 people, their livestock and the soil. Her grant reviewers were skeptical, says Eric Alm, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology microbiologist and Brito’s current postdoctoral adviser. After all, the government-funded Human Microbiome Project had also taken samples from 300 people — and that a was multiyear effort involving four different research institutions. Brito “was proposing to essentially do the same thing, all herself, in a foreign country in the developing world,” Alm says.

Aerial view of the  Mamanuca Islands in Fiji.

Aerial view of the Mamanuca Islands in Fiji.

Source Danita Delimont / Getty

Brito was undaunted. Raised on Long Island, New York, by a single mother since the age of 8, she’s the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors who immigrated first to Israel, then to the U.S. after World War II. Her childhood friend Cassie Abrams recalls her as a renaissance woman — athletic, “an incredible musician.” Brito wasn’t specifically attracted to science as a kid, but says she’s always had “curiosity and a scientific leaning,” even if she didn’t know where it was leading her until recently.

Risk-taking is also a big part of her own DNA. Built like a runner and with her dark, curly hair pulled back into a messy bun, Brito looks like she might leap into action at any second. No surprise that she cycles, swims and competes in team adventure races with Alm. A Vermont race in the dead of winter — actually called Frigid Infliction — required them to navigate with a map and a compass (no smartphones), snowshoe, cross-country ski and complete a rope course. “Even 24 hours into a race, she’s still making good decisions, still actively working towards the finish line,” Alm says.

To get herself to Fiji, Brito cobbled together funds from a small Columbia University fellowship, the Fiji ministry of health and her credit cards. Much of that money went toward the purchase and transport of two massive liquid-nitrogen containers for storing her heat-sensitive samples. Those canisters now live under piles of bicycle tires in the basement of her house — which, naturally, she remodeled herself several years ago with just the help of her mother, a plumber and an electrician. Her mother also supplied cheap labor for the Fiji project, labeling thousands of sample tubes before Brito left.

Brito had no guarantee she could even afford to analyze the microbes once she got back, but in January 2011 she was off anyway. She went door-to-door with a team of four translators; she’d swab people’s hands while the translators took down data about their social networks and lifestyles. Villagers would drop by later with their stool samples. “They all must have thought I was crazy,” she says. “Here’s this woman who came from halfway around the world, and she’s collecting our poop.”

Two months later, she was back, her canisters full. Analysis of the samples took years — Brito had to scare up more funding (including a welcome $500,000 from the Broad Institute), extract all the DNA and then come up with new ways of sifting through the data — but the results are due soon. It’s too early to know where Brito’s research will lead, but wherever she goes, the data set she collected on her own dime — and those liquid nitrogen canisters — will follow. Her next stop is slightly less tropical: upstate New York. We can only imagine what riches the Borscht Belt will yield.

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