Meet Canada's 'poop lady'

January 10, 2017
View of the community of Resolute Bay, Nunavut (2013). Credit: Catherine Girard

They call her the "poop lady."

Way up north in Canada's Resolute Bay, an Arctic hamlet of less than 300 in Nunavut, the locals are used to seeing Catherine Girard.

 The Université de Montréal student of environmental biology has flown in every summer since 2010 to research the diet and health of the local Inuit population.

By 2012, after undergraduate work on aquatic mercury, she narrowed down her PhD subject to analyzing "," the bacteria in people's digestive tracts.

And to do that, she had to collect stool samples.

Her findings, published in early January in the American Society for Microbiology journal mSphere, mark the first time that Inuit microbiome has been described.

"I got to know people up there very well over the years, said Girard, 28.

"And they did me a big favour by welcoming me into their community and then doing this weird and gross and embarrassing thing for me."

She started out low-key. Helped by a local guide and interpreter - essential to her work - Girard pitching her project in as polite terms as possible.

"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," she recalled.

Asked to donate a stool sample, "they'd say yes or no immediately. Either they'd be grossed out by the idea or think it was hilarious and want to see what's in their poop."

Resolute Bay hunter observing cracks in ice for signs of seals (2016) Credit: Catherine Girard

Girard put signs up around town, made radio announcements, attended Canada Day parades and Nunavut Day festivities, went door-to-door. She encouraged people to donate, telling them their microbiomes are key to their health and are so uniquely northern that her study would "put them on the map."

In the end, thanks to support from local organizations and members of the community, she bagged 19 stool samples and had them flown south to Montreal to be analyzed.

And that's when she got a surprise.

In the lab of her thesis co-supervisor Jesse Shapiro, a computational evolutionary biologist at UdeM, Girard learned the Inuit's gut microbiome wasn't so unique after all. Compared with samples from 26 residents of Montreal, the samples from Resolute Bay were remarkably similar, indicating a similar kind of diet: low in fiber, high in fat.

Studies of the microbiome of other rural, indigenous, hunter-gatherer populations around the globe - in Burkina Faso, Tanzania and Venezuela, notably - have shown the opposite. There, people eat more vegetables and less meat, and the microbes in their gut are thus more diverse.

Because the Inuit eat raw fish and sea mammals (mostly seal), they ingest fewer carbohydrates and more animal fat and proteins - and also, potentially, mercury, a neurotoxin that bioamplifies in marine foodwebs. The Inuit also eat a lot of processed foods flown in from the south.

Combined, the two types of diets - traditional and modern - tend to lead to obesity and other health problems such as diabetes. Mercury could add to the mix. Girard hopes her work on microbiota and mercury will lead to a better understanding of how they influence each other.

 "This is what I'm starting to work on right now," said Girard, whose PhD is being supervised by Shapiro and UdM biology professor Marc Amyot.

"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's interactions with Inuit microbiome."

Next up: Getting at different times of the year, not just summer, to see how the microbiomes variy as people's diets change over the seasons.

"People just don't realize it: you have more bacterial cells on your body than you have human cells, and microbiomes are extremely important," Girard said.

"They're important to your health, they're unique to you, like a fingerprint, and the better we understand them, the more we'll all know about who we are."

Explore further: First snapshot of Inuit gut microbiome shows similarities to Western microbiome

More information: Catherine Girard et al, Gut Microbiome of the Canadian Arctic Inuit, mSphere (2017). DOI: 10.1128/mSphere.00297-16

Related Stories

Lifestyle has a strong impact on intestinal bacteria

April 28, 2016

Everything you eat or drink affects your intestinal bacteria, and is likely to have an impact on your health. That is the finding of a large-scale study led by RUG/UMCG geneticist Cisca Wijmenga into the effect of food and ...

Mercury exposure in Canada's northern indigenous communities

July 19, 2016

Mercury exposure is common in communities in Canada's north, especially in indigenous peoples who consume fish and other wild food with high mercury content, yet current clinical guidelines are not adequate for this population. ...

Recommended for you

The astonishing efficiency of life

November 17, 2017

All life on earth performs computations – and all computations require energy. From single-celled amoeba to multicellular organisms like humans, one of the most basic biological computations common across life is translation: ...

Unexpected finding solves 40-year old cytoskeleton mystery

November 17, 2017

Scientists have been searching for it for decades: the enzyme that cuts the amino acid tyrosine off an important part of the cell's skeleton. Researchers of the Netherlands Cancer Institute have now identified this mystery ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.