Ever wondered just what was lurking in the New York City subway system that you couldn’t see?
Warning: If you are a germaphobe, stop here! You will not want to read the contents of this article and if you do read, please don’t hold us responsible for what you do next. After all, we aren’t really making you buy 50 boxes of latex gloves, but we don’t blame you for buying them. (We also don’t blame you for not wanting to ride the subway in the Big Apple after reading this.)
Well, thanks to the efforts by a Cornell University research team, we now know exactly what is there at a micro level.
Yes, we know what is there, we just don’t know what it is! Cornell University researchers are documenting microorganisms and DNA that has been collected from everyday surfaces in New York City, including the subway.
Why is this beneficial to public health?
Researchers believe that mapping systems will tell us how diseases spread through the population and hope maybe that they could allow us to detect bioterror threats.
They think that this research may even allow us to to predict areas people should avoid if there is an outbreak. Chris Mason, one of the project’s lead researchers even reports that traces of the germs causing the bubonic plague were detected.
“One of the most important notes of this entire research project is that we’re surrounded by hundreds of millions and trillions of bacteria, and yet most of us are just fine,” Mason told The Wall Street Journal. “They’re just dust. They’re not this alien invasion force of evil bacteria.”
Speaking of the astounding amount of dust and other DNA researchers found, Mason also told The Wall Street Journal, “Essentially, all of the rats or mice that you might see in the subway, as the train goes through, it kicks up the air and then it coats the entire subway system like snow of their DNA.”
Mason also reports of the work to be done, noting that this data “[underscores] the vast wealth of unknown species that are ubiquitous in urban areas.”
The microbes that call the New York City subway system home are mostly harmless, but include samples of disease-causing bacteria that are resistant to drugs — and even DNA fragments associated with anthrax and Bubonic plague — according to a citywide microbiome map published today by Weill Cornell Medical College investigators.
Infographic showing the relative amount of DNA found in the New York subway system form bacteria associated with the human body. Click to enlarge.
The study, published in Cell Systems, demonstrates that it is possible and useful to develop a “pathogen map” — dubbed a “PathoMap” — of a city, with the heavily traveled subway a proxy for New York’s population.
It is a baseline assessment, and repeated sampling could be used for long-term, accurate disease surveillance, bioterrorism threat mitigation, and large scale health management for New York, says the study’s senior investigator, Dr. Christopher E. Mason, an assistant professor in Weill Cornell’s Department of Physiology and Biophysics and in the HRH Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud Institute for Computational Biomedicine (ICB).
The PathoMap findings are generally reassuring, indicating no need to avoid the subway system or use protective gloves, Dr. Mason says.
The majority of the 637 known bacterial, viral, fungal and animal species he and his co-authors detected were non-pathogenic and represent normal bacteria present on human skin and human body. Culture experiments revealed that all subway sites tested possess live bacteria.
Strikingly, about half of the sequences of DNA they collected could not be identified — they did not match any organism known to the National Center for Biotechnology Information or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These represent organisms that New Yorkers touch every day, but were uncharacterized and undiscovered until this study. The findings underscore the vast potential for scientific exploration that is still largely untapped and yet right under scientists’ fingertips.
“Our data show evidence that most bacteria in these densely populated, highly trafficked transit areas are neutral to human health, and much of it is commonly found on the skin or in the gastrointestinal tract,” Dr. Mason says. “These bacteria may even be helpful, since they can out-compete any dangerous bacteria.”
Can you say, “Ewwwwwww?”
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