by Nina Gan
If you’re ever boggled by the long list of specialists at a hospital, then you’ll know that the human body is something that can never be fully understood by just one doctor. Here are some very specific – but (maybe) slightly gross – areas in health science that doctors and scientists actually study, but without them we would never truly understand the inner workings of our body.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the study of farts would be some sort of teenage prank, but Dr. Michael Levitt (aka the ‘gas guru’) actually specialises in the underappreciated science of flatus. Let’s face it: we all do it. Some more so than others. Every time we eat, gases are produced – when we chew or when the bacteria in our gut releases them – and sometimes it exits the southern route.
Dr. Levitt’s invented a Mylar suit specifically to trap and analyse the composition of gases that give a fart its ‘aroma’ (sulfur is the stink culprit). Gas is also dangerous – in the early days of colonoscopies, hydrogen in the colon was known to explode internally. Its potential explosive danger was also a concern for NASA, who hired the gas guru himself to analyse the fart outputs of its astronauts (apparently astronaut meals made them gassy).
Farts are no laughing matter; a prolonged stinky fart can indicate health problems like infections and food intolerance. Just something to think about the next time you pass gas.
While not a subject of polite talk, our saliva is a hot scientific topic. Just Google ‘saliva expert’, and you’ll find countless ‘spit camps’ and experts specialising in it.
Among this bodily fluid’s vast number of protein species is its cool germ-fighting strain that protects you from infections. It’s so potent it actually kills HIV in your mouth, along with new strains of bird- and swine flu! The composition of your saliva changes with age, which explains why older adults are better able to fight off flu than younger people. Your saliva’s anti-bacterial property also protects you from tooth decay, plus the compound histatin helps heal wounds quickly (so start licking!).
You can also use your drool as a non-invasive way to test for disease pathogens in your body (it sure beats drawing blood) and to gather your DNA data (a la CSI). Now that you know how amazing your spit is, it feels a shame to waste it, no?
Body Odour Research
Let’s not point any fingers, but some people stink. Literally. That’s because our armpits have two types of bacteria, one of which converts our sweat into a pungent odour that sustains an $18 billion deodorant industry. According to Chris Callewaert (or Dr. Armpit to you), prolonged use of deodorants actually increases the dominance of the stinky bacteria. And even if you use deodorant (gentlemen), women can still detect your body odour better than men can (sorry guys!).
However, some people contain a gene that doesn’t make their armpits stink (to find out if you’re one of them, check your earwax). This is due to a variant of the ABCC11 gene which is apparent in most East Asians who – thankfully – lack a chemical to make BO. In comparison, 98% of Europeans have the smelly-armpit variant.
More than smelly underarms, human scent is made up of an array of volatile organic compounds (VOC) which can be used to diagnose diseases and disorders, and reveal the state of your well-being (you smell different when stressed and when you’re attracted to someone else). In an EU-funded project, VOC profiles are even being used to help find trapped humans in disaster zones.
Ear Wax Expert
There’s plenty of gold to be found in your ear. Earwax (cerumen) is another hot topic amongst scientists, because its compounds can tell you about your ethnicity. If you’re of East Asian descent, chances are your earwax is drier and not so yellow, while Caucasian and African earwax are traditionally thicker and darker in colour. Plus, the thicker/yellower the earwax, the stinkier it is. All earwax smell the same, just at a different intensity. According to earwax expert George Preti from the Monell Center, it’s all genetic.
Studies have even linked earwax to body odour – the thicker and darker the ear gold, the stinkier the armpit. This is due to the same gene that affects our body odour (the variant of the ABCC11 gene).
Earwax can also be used to detect urine diseases (like maple syrup urine disease, which sound sweet but is actually a deadly metabolic condition), and maybe even chart a person’s life the way tree rings do – if they have enough earwax.
Snot and boogers may sound disgusting, but nasal mucus is vital for good health. This water-based liquid protects your lungs by ferrying pathogens directly to your stomach (meaning you’re always swallowing your snot – up to a pint a day). Don’t worry – its antiseptic enzymes kill bacteria.
You can also tell what’s happening to your body by the colour of your snot; yellow or green means it’s trying to get rid of a virus or bacteria; red or brown means a tiny blood vessel in your nose burst; and grey represents the particles in the air you’re trapping, especially if you’re a smoker or in a polluted area. Scott Napper of the University of Saskatchewan even suggested that eating your own snot exposes your body to the germs trapped inside the liquid to help you build immunity.
A study’s also shown that snot helps us smell by conducting particles into the nasal lining, and a compound of mucus – mucin – is so good at destroying biofilms (a thin layer of bacteria) that researchers at MIT recommend that it be used to coat medical equipment. Ironically, after all this high praise, there is still no scientific name for a ‘booger’.