Finding Obesity in the Sewer

No, this is not about data that’s garbage, or for that matter, sewage. It’s about looking for meaningful insight about patterns of obesity in an expected place. It’s about scientists finding new evidence about obesity in the sewer.

Ryan Newton and colleagues took the unusual approach of examining evidence of differences in the microbiomes of sewage samples from 71 different communities. They looked for relationships between these data and community rates of obesity. A technique called oligotyping served to profile the gene sequences of bacteria found in solid human waste. They found three primary patterns of community microbiomes using these methods and they found that the distribution patterns they observed predicted a community’s obesity rate with surprising accuracy.

Insight is growing rapidly into the role of microbes that inhabit our bodies (the microbiome) in the disease of obesity. Though this research doesn’t directly add to that body of knowledge, it points to a new tool for further exploration. It provides a means for sampling the microbiomes of millions of people at once.

One of the investigators, Murat Eren, explained:

The sewage samples of 71 cities do not tell us anything specific about individuals who live in those cities. However, only using sewage samples, we were able to differentiate these cities based on their estimated level of obesity. This approach can be beneficial to answer various public health questions while not compromising the privacy of individuals. For instance, microbial observatories plugged into sewage systems can keep us informed about the general health of large populations without being intrusive.

Commenting on the novelty of this research, Professor Randy Seeley of the University of Michigan said:

Had they shown up in my office with this idea I would have said “you’re nuts, there’s no way you can pull that off.” The fact that they are capable of doing it just shows you the power of the big-data approach.

This research illustrates how innovative research techniques can advance our quest to better understand the evolving epidemic of obesity.

We have much to learn about the role of our microbiome in this epidemic.

Click here to read more from Inside Science and here to read the study.

Reflected Light, photograph © the autowitch / flickr

Subscribe by email to follow the accumulating evidence and observations that shape our view of health, obesity, and policy.