Going for the Gut

In a tiny Malay village near an ancient tropical rain forest, MIT postdocs Mathieu Groussin and Mathilde Poyet were explaining through an interpreter that they wanted members of the Batek tribe to donate some poop.

The villagers laughed. When they stopped laughing, they described how their toileting—which did not involve any actual toilets—took place privately, deep within the forest.

Groussin, Poyet, and MIT professor and biological engineer Eric Alm had traveled to Malaysia in March as part of a worldwide mission to preserve the biodiversity of human gut microbes. It was crucial to include hunter-gatherers like the Batek, because their diets and microbiomes are strikingly different from those of city dwellers.

But this indigenous tribe 500 kilometers from Kuala Lumpur did not routinely encounter requests for stool samples. And now their modesty was posing a dilemma to the team’s first Asian trip.

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Photo: Going for the Gut