Environment & Science

What microbes lurk in the subways of New York? Mysteries abound

The <em>Pseudomonas stutzeri</em> bacterium, commonly found in soil, was the most prevalent subway microbe. Lower Manhattan was its prime hangout.
The Pseudomonas stutzeri bacterium, commonly found in soil, was the most prevalent subway microbe. Lower Manhattan was its prime hangout.
/Mason/Cell Systems 2015

If you were seeking a seething mass of microbes, it's hard to think of a better place to look than the New York City subway system.

Scientists who descended into that subterranean maze in search of its microbial tenants wanted to find out how the 1.7 billion people who use the system each year influence the microbes, and vice versa.

But the 18-month-long project, which sampled DNA from 466 stations, was no walk in Central Park.

As Robert Lee Hotz of The Wall Street Journal reports:

"[S]cientists and student volunteers gamely dodged rats and gingerly worked around discarded pregnancy tests, used condoms, puddles of vomit and rotting food to swab surfaces in every subway station. On more than one occasion, suspicious police stopped them and escorted them to the street."

The intrepid explorers discovered that the city's microscopic inhabitants are just as diverse as its human denizens.

The project, which was led by researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College, is just one of many efforts around the world trying to map human environments, indoors and out. The study was published online in the journal Cell Systems on Thursday.

The subway microbiome could perhaps be used to monitor trends in human disease, the researchers speculate, detect bioterror weapons or even solve crimes.

Stay tuned for CSI Subway Microbiome.

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