New York’s Subway-Riding Microbes Have a Favorite Borough, TooCaroline Chen
Just like New Yorkers have their own favorite neighborhoods, so do the city’s bacteria.
After spending 17 months swabbing turnstiles, benches, trashcans, kiosks and train cars, researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College have created, for the first time, a microbiome map of New York City’s subway system. The research was published Thursday in the journal Cell Systems.
They detected 637 different species of bacteria, viruses, fungi and animals. The majority weren’t capable of causing human infections, though 12 percent were associated with known disease. While the researchers even found two samples of DNA fragments of anthrax and the bubonic plague, neither was alive.
Many of the bacteria are a normal part of human life and can also be found on the skin or elsewhere in the body, according to Christopher Mason, the study’s senior investigator.
“These bacteria may even be helpful, since they can out-compete any dangerous bacteria,” Mason said in a statement. Even more infectious microbes are “likely just the co-habitants of any shared urban infrastructure and city.”
The researchers looked at all five boroughs, tagging more than 4,200 samples from 24 subway lines with a global positioning system. At South Ferry station, which was flooded by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, they found 10 species of bacteria usually found in marine environments.
“The walls of the subway still carry the echo of the hurricane, and you can see it in the microbiome,” Mason said. “The big questions are -- how long will it stay? How does this impact health and the design of the built environment of the subway? This is why we have kept sampling and swabbing since we started.”
The Bronx had the most diverse bacteria, followed by Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens and finally Staten Island. Among the findings: more than a quarter of samples had live, antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Forty-eight percent of the DNA did not match any known organism.
Bacteria make up a large part of the human body, which may contain 10 times as many microbes as human cells, the researchers said in the statement. Scientists have been working to understand the role bacteria play in human health and disease, and their place in everything from digestion to serious diseases.
Researchers in 14 states are doing similar work to examine microbes in public places and on transit systems.