Quirks & Quarks

Potty talk: the secrets Kim Jong-un could be hiding in his private portable toilet

5 ways that studying the North Korean leader's poop could reveal sensitive information

5 ways that studying the North Korean leader's poop could reveal sensitive information

North Korea leader Kim Jong-un reportedly travels with a portable toilet to prevent spies from getting their hands on his stool. (SeongJoon Cho/Reuters)
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According to South Korean news reports and the testimony of a defector, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un travels with a portable toilet, so his bowel movements don't fall into the wrong hands. But how much personal information could spies glean from the dictator's stool if they could obtain a sample?

Quirks & Quarks producer Sonya Buyting spoke with Canadian poop expert, Emma Allen-Vercoe, a professor of microbiology from the University of Guelph. She studies the microbiome of feces and works with it on a daily basis, and verified that it is possible to extract a lot of sensitive information from the leader's excrement.

"You can learn an awful lot about a person from their poop — believe it or not," said Allen-Vercoe.

So we might speculate that Kim's sensitivity about this might have to do with how that information could be used in propaganda that could undermine his carefully cultivated image in North Korea. News of failing health or some kind of chronic medical condition could be considered an important state secret.

1. Cacophony of smells gives clues about diet

Of course one of the first things any would-be spy would notice if they were to acquire a sample would be the smell.

According to Allen-Vercoe, who considers herself to be a bit of a poop smell connoisseur, personal poop odours are often affected by diet.

A high protein diet, for example, could lead to high sulphur content. "Then you're going to get some sort of hydrogen sulfide gas produced which has a sort of rotten egg smell," said Allen-Vercoe.

"What you might get if you're eating a lot of vegetables is a lot of what we call 'short chain fatty acids' being produced by the microbes in the gut," said Allen-Vercoe. These fatty acids produce volatiles including butyrate, which smells like sour vomit. "It's a really horrible smell, but the undercurrents of that is you can you can tell if someone's eating a high fibre diet."

We don't know what Kim's private portable toilet looks like. The curator of the Guggenheim museum offered this fully functioning solid gold toilet, made by Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, to President Trump for the White House in 2017 (William Edwards/AFP/Getty Images)

2. Visual inspection can reveal more about diet and health

A simple visual inspection of the colour and consistency of poop could reveal yet more information about the North Korean leader's diet and health.

"Some foods can actually colour your poop quite quite strongly," said Allen-Vercoe.

Blueberries, for example, can turn poop green and beets can give it a red hue, whereas poop that's light brown in colour might be indicative of abnormal fat content, and perhaps an unhealthy diet or health problem.

Consistency of poop is also important to consider for clues it can reveal.

"If it's really hard, that can tell you that... you're either dehydrated or that you're not eating enough vegetables or that you're constipated," said Allen-Vercoe.

"And of course, if it's liquidy, then that means that you have diarrhea. And that's another problem that could be due to a food poisoning agent or something similar to that."

3. We could find drug metabolites in poop

Kim could be concerned that his feces could reveal how he's being treated for physical or mental disorders

When medicines get broken down by the liver or the gut microbiome, they leave byproducts in the poop. So if Kim was taking medicine for his heart or antidepressants, spies could find traces of these byproducts.

"We can see metabolites of these drugs," said Allen-Vercoe. "That will tell us information about the drugs that that particular person is taking and whether or not those drugs are being processed properly."

4. Microbial species could reveal hints of chronic diseases

Kim might also be concerned that cutting-edge fecal analysis could ferret out hints of a wide range of diseases based on the variety and population of microbial species in poop.

"Some of the diseases that we are most convinced have some kind of interaction with the gut microbiome would be obesity, Type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome, inflammatory bowel diseases and even diseases like Parkinson's disease and anxiety and depression,"  said Allen-Vercoe.

North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un walks with U.S. President Donald Trump during the second North Korea-U.S. summit in Hanoi, Vietnam. (KCNA via Reuters)

These would only be hints of problems, though, not clinical proof. In most cases, researchers are still trying to refine what might be a gold standard microbial signature of disease. For a few disorders — colorectal cancer is one example — scientists are very close to a diagnostic tool based on which microbes are present.

This science is difficult, according to Allen-Vercoe. Everyone's "poo print" — like a fingerprint, but for their unique microbial makeup — is different, so the microbial signature of disease will likely be a little different for each individual.

5. Private genetic information could be extracted from excrement

We're all becoming more and more sensitive about privacy and our genetic information, so a cautious dictator would likely be intensely concerned about how that kind of information could be obtained from their feces

"Your gut is sloughing off cells all the time into your poop," said Allen-Vercoe. "And those cells contain DNA. And DNA, as it turns out, is a fairly stable molecule and so you can actually very easily extract the DNA from an actual person's cells."

DNA sequences can, of course, reveal risks of developing genetic diseases. But there's even more information available by sequencing the DNA's epigenome.

Epigenetic markers are chemical tags that sit on top of DNA, and are the body's way of modifying the function of the genome in response to environmental challenges. As a result they can reveal a lot about a person's lifestyle. In recent work, for example, researchers showed how they could reveal how much a person has smoked in their lifetime.

This science is also still in its infancy, but similar analysis of epigenetic modifications to the genome could potentially tell if a person is a heavy drinker, what their diet is like, if they exercise, or if they were ever exposed to certain chemicals.

So all in all, for a secretive world leader determined to reveal the absolute minimum about himself to the rest of the world and even his own people, keeping his poop private might not be such a paranoid strategy.

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