NYC Subway Bacteria Map Finds Plague, Sauerkraut DNA

Researchers have mapped out the particles found across the city’s subway system, and they found a range of DNA from mozzarella cheese to the Bubonic plague. Contessa Brewer reports. (Published Friday, Feb. 6, 2015)

Researchers have mapped out the particles found across the city’s subway system, and they found a range of DNA from mozzarella cheese to the Bubonic plague.

The “PathoMap,” created by Weill Cornell Medical College researchers, maps out microbes and pathogens found on hand rails, kiosks, benches, turnstiles and passenger seats. The research team used nylon swabs to collect DNA in 24 subway lines in all five boroughs over a period of 17 months.

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Researchers say most of the DNA found across the subway system is harmless, like the cheese DNA, but the study also found some drug-resistant, disease-causing bacteria, including some DNA fragments associated with anthrax and the Bubonic plague.

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Other disease-causing bacteria found in the subway system include E. coli, staph infections, meningitis, sepsis and strep infections.

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At the DeKalb Avenue station in Brooklyn, researchers found 52 different kinds of bacteria, including ones associated with urinary-tract infections, sauerkraut and oil cleanup. Bacteria associated with food poisoning and respiratory ailments was found at the Forest Hills-71st Av station in Queens, and samples associated with heart-valve infections and toxic cleanup were found on turnstiles and MetroCard vending machines at the Upper East Side's Lexington Avenue station.

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The South Ferry station in lower Manhattan, which was flooded by Sandy, is a virtual marine environment, the researchers found. Each of the samples from the floors, walls and railings of the station were clustered with the dozen samples collected from the water and shores of the Gowanus Canal.

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The diversity of bacteria found by subway line reflects the diversity of the population in the borough through which it runs, the researchers said. The Bronx had the most number of different bacteria species, followed by Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens.

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For information by subway station or bacteria type, check out The Wall Street Journal's interactive based on the study.

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Of the known bacteria identified in the transit system, 57 percent have never been associated with human disease, the study found. Researchers say the results are mostly reassuring and there’s no need to avoid the subway system or wear protective gloves or masks.

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As Weill-Cornell University scientist Chris Mason, one of the authors of the study, told Gothamist, "You wouldn't want to lick all the poles, even though you'd probably be fine."

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The study can be used for long-term disease surveillance, bioterrorism threat mitigation and large-scale health management, according to researchers.

Researchers' complete analysis is available here.