University of Amsterdam: Camel feces diarrhea myth debunked

A story about the history of fecal transplantation that is often cited in the scientific and popular literature states that German soldiers in the Second World War treated dysentery with camel feces. A team of microbiologists from Amsterdam UMC and the University of Amsterdam encountered this story in their research on gut health and investigated if there is any truth behind it. Microbiologist Seppen: ‘It is unlikely that this early form of fecal transplantation has ever occurred.’ Their findings were published in PLOS ONE.

German soldiers, occupying North Africa in the Second World War, supposedly observed that bedouins were treating dysentery with fresh camel feces. The therapeutical effect of camel feces is mentioned to be medicated by the bacterium Bacillus subtilis in the camel feces. Seppen: ‘No independent evidence for the camel feces story could be found with a deep literature search. There is a lot of literature about therapeutical use of camel urine, but not about camel feces.’

Literature analysis
The story about the use of camel feces can be found in many scientific papers and websites, but also on youtube and in popular scientific literature. A literature analysis shows that all these references are based on a single, tongue in cheek, paper from 2001. The source mentioned in this paper is a German website that is no longer online. Seppen says: ‘There is evidence that Bacillus subtilis has a probiotic effect and can help in reducing diarrhea. This makes the story that bedouins used camel feces with Bacillus subtilis in the treatment of dysentery attractive.’

Investigating camel feces
An investigation into the bacterial composition, the microbiome, of two different camel fecal samples from Egypt showed that only low amounts of Bacillus subtilis are present in camel feces. Seppen: ‘We could only detect Bacillus subtilis with a sensitive method that takes advantage of the fact that this bacterium makes resistant spores. The concentration of Bacillus subtilis in camel feces is comparable to that in human feces or soil and far below a concentration that could have a therapeutic effect.’

The importance of research into camel feces
Seppen: ‘We show that a dubious story, when plausible and catchy, can be quickly picked up and spread, also in the serious scientific literature. The importance of this research is not only correcting the scientific literature. We have developed techniques we will use to investigate the importance of Bacillus subtilis and other bacteria that form resistant spores in intestinal disorders.’

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