Photo: Derek Key/Flickr
The only thing scarier than unwanted conversation in the New York City subway is the hundreds of bacterial species that inhabit it.
The findings of PathoMap, a research project to identify and plot the DNA present in the city’s 466 subway stations, were released on Thursday — and the data is likely to prevent future generations from daring one another to lick a handrail ever again.
According to the Wall Street Journal, teams of medical students, grad students and volunteers collected thousands of swab samples off surfaces in the subway. In total, they discovered traces of 15,152 microbes — which include bacteria, archaea, fungi, protists and viruses.
About 48 percent of their samples did not match any known organisms. This is because genetic sequencing is a fairly new process and scientists have only sequenced around 4,000 genomes to date.
An additional 47 percent was identified as bacteria — but before Lysol goes flying off the shelves, it should be noted that the majority of these were good bacteria. The harmful bacteria associated with disease accounted for roughly 31 percent. There were, however, a few unsavory species detected in the samples — like antibiotic-resistant bacteria, dysentery and urinary-tract infections. Small traces of the bubonic plague and anthrax were also found, but these samples were not alive. Surprisingly, only 0.2 percent of the microbes matched the human genome. Other traces of specimens included mice, fish, lice and rats.
The purpose of the project was not to scare small-town tourists away from visiting the Big Apple, but to index the microbes and compare them to future findings. This will help to track the spread of diseases, a vital tool in the age of Ebola, H1N1 and SARS. The researchers also hope to spread awareness among architects and engineers about designing healthy urban environments, encouraging initiatives like building proper ventilation and garbage disposal systems.
Look out for microbe-swabbers on your morning commute — PathoMap has plans to take their project overseas to the subways of cities like Paris, São Paulo and Shanghai.