A feature for News Review
David Whitlock, a donnish, Einstein-haired chemical engineer, hasn’t showered for 12 years. “I may be crazy,” he tells me, “but I’m not stupid.” Instead, Whitlock spritzes himself daily in millions of bacteria, called AOB (ammonia-oxidising bacteria), that normally live in the soil, rivers, lakes and the sea. As a result, he claims, his skin is smoother and probably healthier. (An occasional wipe with a sponge serves to “wash away grime”.)
Whitlock, and his colleagues at AOBiome, a startup based near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, are optimistic that AOB might represent the next “blockbuster” breakthrough in medical treatment that they hope to pioneer.
Twelve years ago, Whitlock says, he was staying on a farm,“dating this woman, trying to impress her, and she asked me why her horse rolled in the dirt in March. I said it might be to get rid of insects, but she told me it was too early in the year for that.”
He had a hunch that horses would not have developed the behaviour without sound evolutionary reasons.
“Eventually, I figured out that it was to get the right kind of bacteria on their skin so their sweat wouldn’t putrefy over the summer.”
If it worked on one mammal, why not on us? Human sweat breaks down into ammonia. AOB can “feed on” or oxidise this ammonia, but detergents in shampoo and other cleaning products will kill them far faster than they can replicate. Whitlock tested himself for AOB and found none on his body.
“A lifestyle of bathing every morning and doing the various things normal people do had wiped them out,” he says.
“I tried not bathing for a while, but still none showed up.” So he visited an organic farm and took soil samples from the pigsty, cowshed and chicken coop. He cultured the AOB from the samples, made sure there were no dangerous or pathogenic bacteria among them, then “took a final shower, rinsed myself thoroughly and started applying the bacteria”.
What did his friends and family make of this? “I was living alone at the time.”
Julia Scott, a New York Times writer, recently visited Whitlock and his colleagues — some of whom have severely reduced the number of times they wash and use shampoo and deodorant — at AOBiome. “I got close enough to shake their hands, engage in casual conversation and note that they in no way conveyed a sense of being ‘unclean’ in either the visual or olfactory sense,” she wrote.
Whitlock continues to wash his hands with simple soap for food preparation and after using the lavatory.
In a recent pilot study, people who spritzed themselves in AOB for several weeks reported positive results. Scott used the product for a month and said her skin “became softer and smoother . . . and my complexion, prone to hormone- related breakouts, was clear”.
James Heywood, director of AOBiome, believes the bacteria “increase health resilience” in humans. The company now plans to study conditions that AOB may help, including eczema and skin allergies. Heywood claims the bacteria have healed wounds in diabetic mice quicker than usual.
We live in an era that places an extraordinary and historically untypical emphasis on physical cleanliness. The so-called hygiene hypothesis states that a lack of childhood exposure to infectious agents, parasites and “good” micro-organisms — including those that live in the gut and on the skin — has helped to cause a spike in allergies and auto-immune diseases today.
One study found that the rate of eczema among Swedish children in cities is about 12%, but 7.6% among those on farms (who probably come into contact with soil, and AOB, more often). Among American Amish children, who use no chemicals or technology, eczema rates are as low as 1%.
“We live in abnormal environments,” says Heywood.
“We’ve disconnected ourselves from physical work and the biodiversity we evolved in as hunter-gatherers. In some ways, it’s a wonder we’re not sicker. The next class of blockbuster drugs will fundamentally restore resilience and balance to human health.”
Years of antibiotics did nothing for my teenage acne; only a lengthy course of the aggressive drug Roaccutane had some effect.
How strange it would be if the cure, all the while, was lying right under my feet.