The germs hiding on the subway (and how big data found them)

Bacteria found could cause bubonic plague, meningitis, and more

Researchers have created the first big-data genetic profile of the New York City subway system by collecting, identifying, and mapping the micro-organisms found through the system.

According to the Wall Street Journal, projects across the United States aim to combine microbiology, genomics, and population genetics to identify the micro-organisms inhabiting buildings and confined locations in cities. Researchers hope that documenting the micro-organisms will improve the tracking of disease outbreaks and help combat antibiotic resistance.

Scouring the subway

For this 18-month long project, Christopher Mason, a geneticist at Weill Cornell Medical College, and a team of researchers collected DNA from various surfaces throughout the transit system's 466 open locations, including benches, railings, and ticket kiosks.

The researchers sequenced the more than 10 billion sections of biochemical code they collected and sorted them using a supercomputer. They then compared the results with genetic databases of known bacteria, viruses, and other life forms.

Overall, the researchers identified 15,152 different life forms, almost half of which belonged to bacteria. According to researchers, germs found at various locations could cause:

  • Antibiotic-resistant infections;
  • Bubonic plague;
  • Meningitis; and
  • Other conditions.

However, the researchers note that most of the bacteria would not cause harm and were present in such low levels that they would not threaten public health. In addition, they say that about half of the DNA they found did not match any known life forms

In addition, some of the DNA comparisons could be inaccurate because relatively few organisms have had their entire genome sequenced, according to the researchers. In some instances, computers could have matched partial DNA from certain life forms to the nearest known species available (Lee Hotz, Wall Street Journal, 2/5; Harris, New York Times, 2/5).


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