Poop research might get a more polite name

A poop by any other name is still a poop, but scientists are proposing a new name to describe the science of stool: in fimo. If it sticks, we might need to get used to hearing the phrase more often.

The proposal, recently published in the journal Gastroenterology and first reported by Science News, calls for a new name for the experimental investigations of poop. Lead author Aadra Bhatt is an assistant professor at the UNC School of Medicine who studies cancer and the interaction between bacteria, drugs, and the gut. That means that she needs to study poop and the stuff inside it. But when she was writing up a research study, she discovered that she didn’t have the right words to describe those experiments.

She could use terms like in vitro to describe experiments in a test tube or dish and in vivo to describe experiments in living things, but she was stuck when she needed to describe the more poop-oriented parts of her research. “I kept having to use multiple words: ‘We studied fecal extracts from mice,’” she says. “I wanted to come up with a new catch-all phrase.”

So she teamed up with structural biologist Matt Redinbo and classics scholar Luca Grillo, and turned to Latin, the source for those other shorthands in biology. They discovered that Latin has a surprising number of words for poop. “Romans were farmers, and when it came to manure they were second to no one,” the paper says. They weighed options like merda, or laetamen (“the dung which gets spread across fields”), but the team ended up with fimus, which can apply to both human and animal poop. Plus, ancient Roman poets liked the word. “It took on a literary flavor,” the paper says.

Bhatt calls the work a lighthearted contribution to her field that didn’t require her to get her gloves dirty. “With respect to this paper, we’re not trying to cure cancer. In our other work, we are,” she says. “This is sort of a way of blowing off steam while doing something that makes us really happy.” She spoke with The Verge about poop, the gravitas of science, and golden geese that lay chicken noodle soup. (It’s a metaphor for pooping.)

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Why are you proposing a new word for research in poop?

Because the word is missing presently. I talked to a couple of people, and we came up with this word, and it’s rather delightful, so why not use it? That’s really the reason that we’ve coined the term. And who knows? Maybe down the line, we’ll realize that this is a very important term because with the way science seems to be going, we are finding that so much of human health lies in the gut. And we’re going to continue studying this, so it’s a small contribution that we can make that’s away from the bench.

What does an in fimo experiment look like?

It’s easiest to use a food analogy. Is that okay? Think about the poop as being, for example, a chicken noodle soup. So you have this golden goose that lays chicken noodle soup. We first blend it up to burst open the bacteria that are inside in the poop. The analogy for that is you put it in the blender to make everything very uniform instead of a chunky chicken noodle soup with carrots and celery and chicken. You make it more of a creamy soup, right? Then you’d centrifuge it, and centrifugation just allows heavy things to settle and light things to remain on top. So in the context of the poo, the heavy things that settle are basically the plant fibers that are indigestible, and on top is a collection of bacteria and some host proteins, which you can separate and put into a test tube and then perform your experiment. The particular enzyme that we’re studying is involved in metabolizing chemotherapy drugs. So while this is a very lighthearted paper, ultimately what we want to do is reduce the side effects of chemotherapy in patients.

Why in fimo?

Fimus is a word that was used by Virgil, Livy, and Tacitus, who were very important Roman writers, and that word was used to refer to manure — animal and human manure — with respect to agriculture. To be respectful to their contribution to language, we picked the highest level word we could.

What other words did you consider?

There are four words we could have used. One is laetamen, the other is merda, another is stercus, and the last is fimus. I really liked laetamen because it means rich, fertile, happy. Again, this is a word for manure. These are all words for manure. Laetamen is a very happy-sounding word. That’s where the name Leticia comes from. That’s the root word for that — so fertile, rich, and happy. It was historically restricted to farm animal dung, not human excrement, so we didn’t use that. And then the other word is merda, which is still used to refer to excrement, even now in French, Spanish, Italian. But it’s sort of a base word, and we didn’t want to besmirch science.

The other two words were stercus and fimus. Stercus is not a terrible choice: in stercus even has a decent ring to it. But stercus is also the root word for scatology, which is obscene literature, and we’re really hoping this paper is not considered obscene literature. So that’s where fimus came up. It had all of these positive associations: it had been used by these preeminent ancient Roman writers, it had a good ring to it as well because it fell into in vitro, in vivo, in fimo. It sounded nice. And that’s where we came up with in fimo.

Did you consider “in poop” or “in stools” or “in feces”?

Well, not “in poop” because there’s a certain amount of gravitas we wanted to lend to science. “In stools” is technically not latin, so that wouldn’t have been appropriate. In feco is one we threw around, and I’ve heard it used elsewhere as well. But the root word for fecal, which is faex, didn’t actually mean excrement. It meant the dregs at the bottom of a flask of wine. So it has the right ring since we use “feces” all the time, but it just technically isn’t correct. So for the sake of accuracy, we proposed in fimo.

Have you heard anybody else using in fimo yet?

Not yet. But we’re hoping really soon. We’ve been using this terminology at conferences in the past. People have been very excited about it. Somebody contacted me a few months ago and asked if he could use it in his PhD thesis, and I said, “Of course. Please do!” So we’re hoping that people will embrace this term.

Where are you going to take your naming skills next?

We’ll see. There’s so much Latin out there, and there’s so much science. I have no immediate plans, though. Now, it’s back to the bench.