Mysterious subway germs get a map of their own

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New Yorkers like to think they know the subway, warts and all.

But even scientists don’t know what some of the bacteria you can find in cars and on platforms is.

“We have to sequence the unknown,” said Dr. Sergios-Orestis Kolokotronis, an assistant professor and researcher at Fordham University.

He helped work on a new genetic map of microbial life based on samples collected on subways. The resource employed a recent a study that could have wide-ranging implications for public health, environmental protections and more. 

“The PathoMap is a large-scale project to establish the baseline microbiome,” said Dr. Christopher Mason of Weill Cornell Medical College, who led the project. “We’re building a molecular view of the city so that we can tell when it’s disturbed.”

The city’s microbial map could be shaken up, for instance, during an epidemic or natural disaster. Research remains ongoing in order to create a dynamic and seasonal view of the subway. One goal of the PathoMap is to monitor the spread of illnesses, identifying their origins and cooperating with public health officials to stem the tide of infection. A real-world test of Dr. Mason’s research came about during the recent outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease. 

“[The PathoMap] doesn’t work perfectly yet,” he explained. Since the resource is limited to the subway, health officials could only rule out the transit system as the origin of Legionnaires’. 

But with more data being collected all the time, Dr. Mason is confident that the PathoMap will uncover the hidden underbelly of the city. And the map is not limited to disease. Dr. Mason is now applying his research techniques  to bedbug populations and eventually, he hopes, all domains of life. 

To create their resource, Dr. Mason and Dr. Kolokotronis, along with their respective teams and participating institutions, scoured the bowels of subway stations across the city. 

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