The social influence of effluence

A pilot study at MIT is analyzing the human waste produced in a Boston neighbourhood, and the results could lead to everything from predicting disease outbreaks to finding the ideal location to build a park.
Scientists watch a robot collecting human waste in a sewer in Boston. (Newsha Ghaeli/MIT)

Your poop says a lot about you.

What you've eaten. Whether or not you're carrying viruses. How healthy you are overall. So what if planners could collect that data from an entire neighbourhood?

That's exactly the goal of MIT's Underworlds project, which is analyzing the collective human waste of a Boston neighbourhood and discovering an amazing source of information.

"Luigi," a robot that gathers human waste and filters it for analysis, is lowered into a sewer in Boston as part of MIT's "Underworlds" project. (Courtesy Newsha Ghaeli/MIT)

"There's a massive amount of data stored in an individual's microbiome," says Newsha Ghaeli, the Canadian researcher in charge of the project. Examining the waste can describe trends in eating habits, genetics and disease, she adds.

"All of this data is getting flushed down the toilet."

Now, however, some of it is being recovered. The project initially involved scientists lowering a bucket into a sewer to collect the waste to carry back to a lab for analysis. Today, they have a robot called "Luigi," which collects a sample and passes it through a filter, and only the filter has to be examined.

Before "Luigi," there was "Mario", but researchers found the robot too cumbersome to properly collect human waste. (Newsha Ghaeli/MIT)

They can isolate the waste from neighbourhoods with as few as 1,000 people, Newsha says. "We can almost get an immediate imprint of human behaviour through sewage."

In the one neighbourhood they've been studying, the researchers have been able to identify the top ten plant-based foods people have been eating. The list includes wheat, beans, rice, and, surprisingly, pomegranates.

"There might have been a restaurant in the catchment area that had a lot of pomegranate on the menu," Newsha says.

The sewage is also a valuable early warning system for disease outbreaks. The flu virus, for example, incubates for about six weeks. If it shows up in the sewage of a particular neighbourhood, health officials can be better prepared to deal with a forthcoming surge of influenza patients, she adds.

But it's the chemical analysis of the material that can have real value when it comes to urban planning. Through human waste, they can compare the incidence of obesity in, say, suburban areas where people depend on cars, versus densely populated areas where walking is more common. They can also compare areas near parks and grocery stores as opposed to highways and fast food.

"We're really hoping that this data becomes useful for planners and designers in cities."

Be sure to check out the Underworlds site to see a very cool data visualization of viruses!