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Yes, we all do it although some are better able to conceal it than others.  I’m talking about farting – a perfectly natural bodily function which can be uproariously funny, downright embarrassing or even both.

One of my favourite fart stories – alleged to be true – happened at the time of the Queen’s coronation in 1953. It seems that the Queen Mother and the King of Tonga were sharing an open horse-drawn carriage driving through London in the wedding procession when one of the horses let loose a monumental fart.

The Queen Mother, understandably embarrassed, immediately apologised, “I am so sorry Your Majesty,”   she said to the King. He graciously replied, “That is perfectly all right Your Royal Highness and there is no need to apologise. I thought it was one of the horses.”

The fact is that we – by that I mean the medical profession – know very little about the bubbles brewing in our bowels and an Australian medico and his devoted team have made it their business to find out. It’s research not to be sniffed at.

“We know bits and pieces about it, but it’s been very difficult to get to the crux of what is happening,” Professor Peter Gibson who is Professor of Gastroenterology at Melbourne’s Monash University said.

“The precious little we know so far would certainly indicate that flatulence is a rich topic for investigation,” he said with no discernible trace of irony. I don’t doubt what he says is true but is it likely to become a dinner party conversation subject? Depends, I guess, on the menu and its internal effects.

“Excess production of hydrogen and methane seems to suggest there might be a problem with the way your gut is absorbing carbohydrates, for instance – allowing the starches and sugars to instead ferment in the gut. Excess methane may also interrupt your bowel movements, meaning that it could be the cause of constipation for people with irritable bowel syndrome. Unfortunately, we cannot be certain exactly where that methane arises. The dogma is that it is produced in the lower parts of the large bowel, but we don’t know,” he said.

According to Professor Gibson, Strangely enough, the most popular method to measure flatulence has been a breath test.”

Doesn’t seem all that strange to me to be honest.

So they have come up with an idea which reminds me of the 1966 science fiction movie, “Fantastic Voyage” which has as its plot line the shrinking of a submarine and crew to go inside a human body to find a possible cure for a brain jury.

Yes, Professor Gibson and his team have developed a tiny sensor that can be swallowed like a pill and, as it passes through the body, it samples gases at regular intervals and relays them to a computer. It will also measure things like the ambient temperature which means at the end of its voyage and the temperature sensor shows a fall, it means the sensor has been farted out.

This means real-time data can be collected along the way.

An early prototype has already been tested on pigs and human trials are expected to begin within a few months.

Professor Gibson is not the first medico to think about what gases do in the body. In 1886, US medico, Dr Nicholas Senn pumped nearly six litres of hydrogen up his anus using a rubber balloon connected to a rubber hose. His assistant, a notably self-sacrificing sort, sealed the tube by clamping Senn’s anus around it. God only knows what sort of fart he had after that. The word “explosive” springs to mind.

Now here is something I didn’t know – since some gases will be absorbed by the blood and released into your lungs it is possible to find traces of flatulence coming out of your mouth. It makes one think twice about going the full French kiss, frankly.

Some folks have quite memorable farts. A chum of mine releases a truly heroic blast of noise, wind and smell and I am convinced that he is largely responsible for the hole in the ozone layer. The day he is called to his maker, is the day global warming starts to reverse. I’m thinking of reporting him to The Greens.

He has no shame at all and often tells his favourite fart joke – I’ve got a new stick deodorant and the instructions say, ‘Remove cap and push up bottom’. I can hardly walk but when I fart, the room smells lovely.” It smells anything but.

It might be polite to hold a fart in but you could risk doing yourself a nasty internal injury. The longer it is held in, the larger the proportion of inert nitrogen it contains because the other gases tend to be absorbed into the bloodstream through the walls of the intestine.

Truly, Professor Gibson and his team are not just going on and on about hot air.

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Russell Grenning

Russell Grenning is a Brisbane-based former journalist and retired political adviser who began his career with the ABC in 1968 in Brisbane and subsequently worked on the Brisbane afternoon daily, "The Telegraph" and later as a columnist for "The Courier Mail" and "The Australian". He worked for a string of senior Ministers in the Federal, Victorian and Queensland Governments as well as in senior executive public relations positions, including Assistant Federal Director, Public Relations, for Australia Post, Public Relations Manager for the Queensland Department of Main Roads and Principal Adviser, Corporate Relations, for the Queensland Law Society.

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