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These UNC professors created a new scientific word ... about ... poop

Scientific name for poop
Dr. Matthew Redinbo, a professor of chemistry, and Dr. Aadra Bhatt, a professor of medicine, view prepared plates in the Redinbo Lab located in the Genome Science Building on Monday, Feb. 25, 2019.

It comes as no surprise that UNC professors are researching cutting-edge and interesting topics and are doing so creatively. 

However, it may come as a surprise that poop is involved. 

In scientific terminology, “in vitro” means the study of biological processes within a test tube, and “in vivo” means the study of biological processes within a living organism. Over the span of the past year, a group of three professors have come together to coin a new word in the scientific world of biomedical research and the study of the microbiome: “in fimo.”

In Latin, it means to experimentally study poop.

Matthew Redinbo, a professor of chemistry, biochemistry and microbiology, said the importance of the microbiome continues to be reestablished and deepened.

“The field of human health is appreciating that what lives in your bacteria, what lives in your intestines, are trillions of bacterial cells that really make a huge difference to how your body functions,” Redinbo said. “We are just at the beginning of understanding that.”

The waste we flush away everyday can tell us a lot about what our bodies are up to, Redinbo said, including how healthy we are, what we’re eating, if there’s a virus present and more.

Aadra Bhatt, assistant professor of medicine at UNC, has an even more important long-term goal for the research of human excrement.

Bhatt said beyond just analyzing the composition of the bacteria, the enzymatic function of the microbiome is an area of intense research because bacteria in the gut are involved with the metabolism of a number of drugs, including cancer drugs and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory painkillers called “NSAIDs.”

She is hoping that measuring the activity of particular enzymes in the gut as a “biomarker” can be predictive of how patients respond to particular drugs they are being prescribed for their specific illnesses.

But amidst her research and writing up her findings for submission to a scientific journal, she noticed the lack of an official word for the study of human excrement. She realized the need for the creation of a new word due to rising importance of this study in the world of biomedical research.

Dr. Matthew Redinbo, a professor of chemistry, and Dr. Aadra Bhatt, a professor of medicine, pose in the Redinbo Lab located in the Genome Science Building on Monday, Feb. 25, 2019.

Contrary to popular belief, the word “feces” in defining human excrement is entirely incorrect and worked its way into the English language in the wrong context. “Feces” in Latin actually means dregs, the stuff at the bottom of a wine cast or beer barrel, Redinbo said.

So, Bhatt contacted Luca Grillo, an associate professor of classics at the University of Notre Dame and previously at UNC, to help her find the Latin word with the most appropriate connotation to be used in a professional and scientific context. 

With Grillo’s expertise in Latin, he narrowed down the many possible Latin options to one word: “fimus.” This was the term he discovered that had most technical accuracy and “scientific flavor,” because it was the most used in a scientifically appropriate context by major Roman authors such as Virgil, Grillo said.

And so, the word “in fimo” was coined, giving the study a more high-ringing, dignified claim and terminology. 

“To say, ‘I conduct research on human excrement’ can put someone off,” Grillo said. “While if I say, ‘it’s called in fimo’ and then I explain, it has a certain elegance that for some reason a direct English correspondent wouldn’t as easily carry.”

The new word is being received with wide success. 

Grillo has been contacted by scholars both from the United States and Europe, acclaiming his interesting Latin discovery. Bhatt has been asked for permission for use of the word in a Ph.D. thesis and in scientific manuscripts, and the word has been met with enthusiasm at international conferences, she said. 

When their scientific article about “in fimo,” which Bhatt, Grillo and Redinbo worked on together, was published in the most prominent journal in the field of gastrointestinal disease, "Gastroenterology," Bhatt joked in a text:

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“Holy fimus!”                                                               

Still think it’s gross?

“Anything new and unknown and, of course, it can be repulsive, and it can be scary, but that doesn’t mean you put your head in the sand and ignore it," Bhatt said. "We as scientists also have to make sure we are educating the public.”