Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Transfaunation and Fecal Transplants: What Goes Around Comes Around, Literally and Figuratively

In 2006 when I had just moved to UC Davis from TIGR, I was on a Southwest flight from Sacramento to (I think) Arizona. The person sitting next to me and I did the normal chit chat - what do you do? where are you going? etc. And the conversation became fascinating. The person sitting next to me was Mike Lagrone - a farrier (I forget people's names frequently ten minutes after meeting them - but his name I remember even today, so he clearly made an impression). He travelled around the West helping take care of people's horses. (I note - I think more information about him is here Mike Lagrone | EquiMed - Horse Health Matters).

Anyway - we ended up talking about microbes and animals and I told him about a project my lab was working on on tracking the microbes after ileal transplantation in people (see our paper on this here - the result of a collaboration between Amber Hartman in my lab and the lab of Michael Zasloff's at Georgetown). We then discussed probiotics and he then told me an amazing story about how the old school farriers used a special method to treat horses if they were sick with some sort of gastrointestinal distress (e.g., colic). They would make the sick horse "poo tea" by taking feces from healthy horses and making it into a tea of sorts and then they served this to the sick horses. Anyway - the flight ended and he told me I should talk to some of the old school people in the Vet School at UC Davis and they might know more about it.

And then a few months later I had an interesting conversation with someone from the UC Davis Vet School - Jonathan Anderson - about horses. And as part of the conversation I told him of the discussion with Mike Lagrone and Jonathan told me there was a method called "transfaunation" which was analogous to the poo tea treatment - and was used for cows and horses and possibly other animals. Jonathan suggested I talk to Dr. Nicola Pusterla at UC Davis about this ... but alas I never did.

And so - the seed of "transfaunation" and "poo tea" faded. And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend. Legend became myth. And for four and a half years, the idea passed out of all knowledge.

But like the ring of power, transfaunation and poo tea could not be suppressed forever.  And magically, people began to talk about it over the last four years.  The human microbiome became hot.  Fecal transplants became a topic of conversation (with a little help from Carl Zimmer).  Even Colbert covered the topic.  And the final straw for me to get me to write about Mike Lagrone was when a few days ago my mom showed me an article in Scientific American by Maryn McKenna entitled "Swapping Germs: Should Fecal Transplants Become Routine for Debilitating Diarrhea?"  I knew then that the time had arrived for me to write about Mike Lagrone.  So I have.

I note, one reason I wanted to write up the story of meeting Mike Lagrone was because I personally had not noticed much in the coverage of human fecal transplants discussing the animal side of things.  This seemed a bit odd as transfaunation and poo tea and such are clearly closely connected in concept to fecal transplants in people.  A little digging (well, actually, a few Google searches) showed that many in fact have made the connection.  See for example these stories/articles:
To help those who might be interested in the animal side of "fecal transplants" I have made a mini-Mendeley collection of papers on the topic:

It is interesting to me how what goes around comes around (literally and figuratively).  This is probably a very ancient methodology - trying to move microbes from healthy individuals to sick ones to help treat them for various GI ailments.  And lets not even start talking about coprophagia which almost certainly has some "microbial colonization" component.  Thus, I conclude that, though fecal transplants in people may seem gross, it certainly makes a lot of sense that it could provide some benefits.  Not saying we know how to do it best or that it can cure everything - but it certainly seems worth pursuing in more detail.

Stay tuned - it seems very likely we will here much more about this in people over the next few years.  For some of the latest on the human side of things see
Fecal Transplants: They Work, the Regulations Don’t - also by Maryn McKenna.

Seems that medicine is catching up to what animals (and their caretakers) have known for some time ...

UPDATE 1/16/2003 - Embedding my Ted talk on a related topic here

More on fecal transplants and bacteriotherapy from my blog can be found below:


  1. So I guess Minny Jackson was actually doing Hilly Holbrook a favour in "The Help" :)

  2. Thanks for sharing your story.
    I'm still not very positive on how it works. I know there are many successful cases of fecal transplant therapy in human, but, personally, very hard to believe and draw links between animal gut (especially cow and horse) and human. From a physiological aspect, there are different...

  3. Glad I found this post as I've been reading quite a lot about this since my sister's life was saved by fecal transplants for clostridium difficile. I came across another blog today and found that these transplants have even completely reversed symptoms of multiple sclerosis. http://www.fecalmicrobiotatransplant.com


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