In Canada’s northern Resolute Bay, an Arctic region of less than 300 people, Catherine Girard is known as the “Poop Lady” by locals.
Girard, a student of environmental biology at the Université de Montréal, has traveled to this remote area every summer since 2010 to understand the diet and gut health of the local Inuit population.
As an undergraduate student, she studied aquatic mercury, but for her Ph.D. she narrowed down her research topic to “gut microbiome,” or the bacteria in people’s digestive tracts. In order to conduct her study, however, she needed samples of their poop.
With the help of a translator and local guide, Girard solicited poop samples from community members. She went door-to-door, attended local festivals and made her stool sample pitch on the radio. In her pitch, Girard told the Inuit people that their microbiome is important to their health and also uniquely northern. She also told them that her study, and their unique poop samples, would put their tiny community “on the map.”
“I tried to keep it casual. We’d joke a lot about me being ‘the poop lady’ and stuff, and people would generally burst out laughing,” Girard said.
With the help of local organizations and community members, Girard was able to collect 19 stool samples.
“I got to know people up there very well over the years,” Girard said. “And they did me a big favor by welcoming me into their community and then doing this weird and gross and embarrassing thing for me.”
With her various poop samples in hand, Girard flew back to Montréal to analyze them.
What she found next surprised her — the Inuit’s gut microbiome wasn’t unique after all. In fact, their samples were remarkably similar to the stool samples from 26 residents of Montréal. This meant the two geographically distant communities shared a similar diet that’s low in fiber and high in fat.
Her findings, published in the American Society for Microbiology journal mSphere, were the first instance of the Inuit microbiome being described.
Previous studies of micro biomes in rural hunter-gatherer populations around the world have shown the opposite of what Girard found in Resolute Bay. In rural areas, such as Burkina Faso, Tanzania and Venezuela, people ate more vegetables and less meat, so the microbiota in their gut were more diverse.
However, since the Inuits eat raw fish and sea mammals like seals, they digest less carbohydrates and more proteins and animal fats, which could possibly be high in mercury. In addition to their protein-rich diet, the Inuits also ate a lot of processed foods flown in from southern Canada.
The combination of the Inuit’s traditional, protein-rich diet and a modern diet of processed food leads to obesity and health problems like diabetes. High mercury intake, Girard suspects, could also add to the mounting health issues. She hopes that her work on microbiota and mercury will lead to an understanding of how and why they influence one another.
“This is what I’m starting to work on right now,” said Girard. “Mercury is a big public health issue up north, and from the stool samples that provided the DNA marker used in our study, we will perform deeper metagenomic analyses that will help us explore this contaminant interactions with Inuit microbiome.”
Next, Girard hopes to collect stool samples from the Inuit during different times of the year to see how microbiomes differ as people’s diets change from season to season.
Danielle Tarasiuk is a multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles. Her work has been published on AllDay.com, Yahoo! Sports, KCET, and NPR-affiliate stations KPCC and KCRW. She’s a proud Sarah Lawrence College and USC Annenberg alumn.