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Jonathan Scheiman is leading me through his lab on the Harvard Medical School campus when he stops next to a tank of liquid nitrogen. He looks like he has something important to say.
"Terminator 2 was one of my favorite movies," Jonathan says. "That was, like, Arnold Schwarzenegger's prime. And the whole thing with liquid nitrogen, freezing the T-1000 and then, 'hasta la vista' — shooting him into pieces. I always think about that when I pass by the liquid nitrogen tank."
Jonathan isn’t your stereotypical science nerd. He doesn’t like wearing a lab coat (you’re probably more likely to see him in a Yankees cap) and he played Division I basketball at St. John’s.
"I wanted to play in the NBA. I didn't make it," he says. "So my backup plan was getting a Ph.D. in molecular biology."
Turtles And Basketball
Jonathan grew up in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village during the 1980s. He was the sort of kid who was fascinated by turtles and amphibians. But his No. 1 love was basketball.
"I was a ballplayer," he says.
Jonathan was a talented guard with NBA dreams. He joined St. John’s during the late '90s, back when the team was regularly reaching the NCAA Tournament.
"I wanted to play in the NBA. I didn't make it, so my backup plan was getting a Ph.D. in molecular biology."Jonathan Scheiman
Jonathan was the team’s lone science major. This meant he didn’t have much time to party with his teammates. And while most of them probably spent their summers focused on basketball, Jonathan made very different plans.
During his freshman year he called the Queens Zoo.
"And I told them I was on the team and, like, I'd love to, sort of, work in the zoo. And I'm a biology major," Jonathan says. "They're like, 'OK ... Sure.'"
Jonathan was assigned to animal husbandry, which is a fancy way of saying ...
"I basically cleaned up s--- every day," Jonathan says.
(Just a heads up: If you’re squeamish about animal or human waste, the rest of this story probably isn’t for you.)
Jonathan became especially familiar with the bison.
"And basically the way it would work is, they would send me into the bison, sort of like, holding facility with two large garbage bins, a shovel and a hose," Jonathan says. "And they'd say, 'All right, we'll see you at lunch.'"
End Of One Journey, Start Of Another
Believe it or not, this was actually an important moment for Jonathan’s future career. But he didn’t know it at the time. He was still focused on making the NBA.
But at the end of Jonathan’s sophomore year, his coach called him into his office.
"And he just sat me down, and he said, 'Listen, I'll just have to be honest with you. I don't really see you playing significant minutes here. You know, that's just how it is,'" Jonathan recalls.
"That must have been — " I start to ask.
"It was devastating," Jonathan says.
It started to sink in: the NBA wasn’t gonna happen.
But Jonathan’s coach said something else at that meeting that stuck: staying with the team, even as a benchwarmer, would open doors in the future.
Jonathan decided to stay. And when he started applying to molecular biology Ph.D. programs during his senior year, he realized his coach was onto something.
"During my interview for NYU, all the applicants were sitting around in one room," Jonathan says. "And I think the dean of the grad school came in and he's like, 'Who's Jon Scheiman?' I was like, 'Oh, that's me.'"
The applicants were supposed to go to a Broadway show that night — but Jonathan and his St. John’s teammates had a game.
"And I think he pointed out that, 'Oh, so I see you have to miss the Broadway show today because you're going to Madison Square Garden. And you're in the band, right? So you're playing in the band for the basketball team?' I was like, 'Well, no. Actually I'm on the basketball team.' He's like, 'Really?' He's like, 'Oh, do you think you could get me tickets for Madison Square Garden?' I was like, 'Well, that depends.' He's like, 'On what?' I said, 'Whether or not you're going to accept me.'"
Seven years later, Jonathan graduated from NYU with his Ph.D. in molecular biology. (Jonathan’s brother still jokes that basketball got him the degree.)
And that’s when Jonathan connected with a one-of-a-kind scientist.
"A lot of the things that my lab has developed would've been classified as science fiction or impossible," George Church says.
George is a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and the Wyss Institute. He's sort of like Willy Wonka — if Willy Wonka had a big white beard, a Ph.D. in biochemistry and had helped start more than a dozen companies.
Among many other projects, his lab has worked on editing the genes of pigs so that their organs can be transplanted safely into humans. They’re trying to resurrect the woolly mammoth using ancient DNA.
Naturally, George’s lab attracts scientists with unusual backgrounds — like, say, a former St. John’s basketball player.
"Well, we've actually had a fair number of, even, world-class athletes in the lab," George says. "It's not incompatible with excellent science."
But after joining George’s lab as a research fellow in 2012, Jonathan didn’t find his niche right away. One of his first ideas — studying snapping turtles — got a lukewarm response.
A lot of the things that my lab has developed would've been classified as science fiction or impossible.George Church
So for his first couple years in the lab, Jonathan kept busy with genome sequencing and engineering. But then he started asking himself some bigger questions.
"'Why am I in George's lab? Like, what am I really doing here?'" Jonathan recalls. "And it literally was — it popped in my head. I was, like, 'I want to sequence LeBron James' genome.'"
His thinking was this: Instead of studying people who are sick, let’s try to learn from someone who’s in top physical shape.
Jonathan brought the idea to George. He was excited. The idea expanded: Instead of studying one person, why not examine a range of elite athletes?
And also ...
"Can we identify things that are unique in them from a molecular basis, extract that information and give to others?" Jonathan asks.
In other words, let's take something from the bodies of elite athletes — and give it to regular people.
But how do you do that?
The Microbiome Meets Sports
You’ve probably heard about the microbiome. It’s kinda "in" these days. George says the research got going in the mid-2000s and the enthusiasm has been growing ever since.
This is the basic idea: Your body carries around about 5 pounds of bacteria and other microbes — most of them live in your gut. And they aren't just hanging out; they do lots of useful stuff, like help digest food, fight off disease and regulate mood.
Scientists have found that introducing certain bacteria can have big effects. For instance, one study took a normal-sized mouse living in a germ-free environment and gave it a microbiome from an obese human, and sure enough ...
"It becomes obese," George says.
So Jonathan and George started thinking: Maybe we can identify bacteria found in elite athletes — and give them to regular people as a nutritional supplement?
The first step was finding out which bacteria are especially common in elite athletes.
'We Don't Need Two Large Garbage Bins, A Shovel And A Hose'
Back in his lab, Jonathan pulls open a metal door to a large freezer. A cloud of cold air billows out.
"All these boxes represent fecal samples collected from athletes," he says.
Yep, fecal samples. As in poop — collected from marathoners, rowers and other athletes. By extracting DNA from these samples, Jonathan can determine which bacteria live in the athletes’ bodies.
"What does it entail for these athletes you've recruited? What's the — " I begin to ask.
"How do we collect the s---, is what you’re asking?" Jonathan asks.
"More or less."
"Well, we don't need two large garbage bins, a shovel and a hose," he says. "So it's always a very fun conversation, talking with athletes. And I can assure you I don't lead with, 'I wanna collect a fecal sample from you.' I normally lead with, 'Hey, I'm Jon Scheiman. I work at the Harvard Medical School. And we're trying to understand what makes elite athletes unique to develop novel nutritional supplements, and would you like to come visit the lab?'"
"And then you sneak it in there?"
"And then we sneak it in."
Jonathan has already collected hundreds of fecal samples. For two weeks before and after the 2015 Boston Marathon, he spent five to seven hours a day driving around the city collecting samples. It’s paid off.
He and George have found that athletes do in fact carry around different bacteria than couch potatoes do. There are even differences from sport to sport — so runners have distinct microbiomes from rowers.
"Which makes sense because they're different sort of physiological demands," Jonathan says.
And, Jonathan and George have already identified some specific bacteria that could be winners. One bug may be associated with limiting fatigue. The hope is that some day the bacteria could be grown in the lab and added to a sports drink or energy bar. And anybody — a professional marathoner or a weekend runner — could take it to boost endurance. Other bugs may play a role in reducing inflammation, which could boost recovery time.
But before you start getting hoop dreams of your own, just know that bacteria won’t transform you into LeBron James.
"This isn't something like it's going to make you dunk or something like that if you couldn't dunk," Jonathan says. "It's not going to make you run an under-two-hour marathon, but can it promote energy metabolism? Can it promote protein metabolism? Can it reduce metabolites associated with fatigue? These sorts of things."
FitBiomics, And The Next Steps
There’s still much work to be done. Next up are functional studies — essentially trial runs to see if these bacteria can really improve performance. Then, hopefully a peer-reviewed paper and the launch of a company, FitBiomics.
Jonathan hopes a product could make it to market in, give or take, two years — though he adds the caveat, "This is science."
It’s not exactly the future he imagined, but ...
"I was actually saying this to my mom the other day: you know, not making the NBA probably was a good thing because the ability to come to Harvard and really be in this unique environment where we could do something entirely novel and transformative and try to bring these communities together," Jonathan says. "So I think, you know, things have a funny way of working out sometimes."
This segment aired on August 2, 2017.
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