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How your in-laws could be causing you indigestion, and perfume fit for a queen

by Manny I. Fox Morone
December 13, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 48


In-laws spur intestinal imbalance

An overenthusiastic middle-age couple stand in their doorway with turkey hats on.
Credit: Shutterstock
May I be excused? Taking a stool sample is a great way to get away from your in-laws at dinner.

A customary Dutch holiday gift box typically contains cookies and chocolate, but in 2016, the staff of the internal medicine and vascular medicine departments at Amsterdam University Medical Center got a little something extra from their colleagues in Max Nieuwdorp’s lab—two fecal-sample collection containers.

The group had been brainstorming a fun microbiome-related study they could do around the holidays, and it’s fair to think that the holiday season, filled with travel, complicated family dynamics, and copious amounts of rich food, could throw your gut out of whack.

On Dec. 23, before Christmas, and again on Dec. 27, MD-PhD student Nicolien de Clercq and then-undergraduate Myrthe Frissen collected the samples. “Everyone was in line to hand over their feces in our department,” de Clercq tells Newscripts, “which was pretty hilarious.” Three years later, their microbiome work has bloomed into a new paper: “The Effect of Having Christmas Dinner with In-Laws on Gut Microbiota Composition” (Hum. Microbiome J. 2019, DOI: 10.1016/j.humic.2019.100058), the idea being that visiting in-laws can be so stressful that it might affect your microbiome.

After deeming dietary differences insignificant between the group that visited in-laws and the group that visited parents, and systematically conducting 16S ribosomal gene sequencing on the samples to characterize types of gut microbes, de Clercq and colleagues found that participants who visited in-laws showed a significant decrease in several genera of the Ruminococcaceae family. Other research has found correlations between low Ruminococcaceae levels and both depression in humans and induced stress in mice.

De Clercq points out that methodologically, the study lacks a few things, like randomization of the family and in-law groups, stress questionnaires, and measurements of the stress-linked hormone cortisol before and after Christmas. She says her group mainly meant to explore and communicate microbiome research in an engaging way. Even so, as you plan to spend quality time with family members this holiday season, the Newscripts gang recommends you listen to your gut and spend your time with the right ones.


Myrrh! What is it good for?

An animated mummy sprays itself with perfume being held in a bottle with a pharaoh mask atop of it.
Credit: Manny Morone/C&EN
Smell like an Egyptian: Researchers recreate perfumes once made in the Nile delta.

Perhaps more pleasant than sorting through your colleagues’ fecal samples is sifting through recipes for millennia-old perfumes. That is the task of Dora Goldsmith, a PhD student at Free University Berlin.

Goldsmith’s research has focused on finding discussions of smell in ancient Egyptian texts, which was associated with health and social strata. “Olfactory appearance and visual appearance went hand in hand in ancient Egypt,” she says. “You can’t be beautiful and attractive and stink.”

In 2018, she started recreating some of those scents using ingredients available in antiquity, including the quintessential Christmas commodities frankincense and myrrh.

That same year, Goldsmith was approached by archaeologists from the University of Hawaii at Manoa and the University of Tyumen who were excavating Tell Timai, a former industrial area in a city the ancient Greeks called Mendes, located in the Nile delta. The site was known for making the once-renowned Mendesian perfume. The archaeologists hoped Goldsmith could recreate the scent.

A collection of resins and plant residues used to make a modern-day Mendesian perfume.
Credit: Dora Goldsmith
Ancient aroma: Ingredients in one of Goldsmith and Coughlin's perfumes include wine (counterclockwise from top left), pine and pistachio resins, myrrh, calamus, cardamom, almonds, and olive oil.

But rather than being written in Egyptian, the only known recipes for Mendesian perfume are written in ancient Greek and Latin, from the period when Egypt had been conquered by Greece and Rome. Enter Sean Coughlin, a historian of philosophy and science at Humboldt University of Berlin who studies Greco-Roman texts. “In antiquity the boundaries between chemistry, medicine, and cosmetics weren’t always clearly defined,” he says. He read through scientific and medical texts such as those by Theophrastus and Pliny the Elder, and he and Goldsmith pieced together a modern Mendesian fragrance by preparing oils and cooking and fixating aromatic plants and resins. Finally, this year, the perfume was featured in an exhibit at the National Geographic Society about the queens of ancient Egypt.

Goldsmith and Coughlin now await the results of the archaeologists’ analyses of perfume residues found on ceramics at Tell Timai to glean more information on the authentic Mendesian recipe.

Manny I. Fox Morone wrote this week’s column. Please send comments and suggestions to


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