There are 15,000 lifeforms riding the NYC subway, including meningitis

Sofia Ahsanuddin @TEDxCUNY

Sofia Ahsanuddin at TEDxCUNY (Photo: TEDxCUNY)

You don’t need a scientist to tell you that the subway is a dirty, germ-filled place. But you do in order to find out which kinds of bacteria are lurking in our public transit system.

To answer this question, Sofia Ahsanuddin, a doctoral fellow at Weill Cornell Medicine’s Mason Lab, literally took to the streets (and under them), swabbing for DNA samples at every single (open) subway station in New York City for evidence of its microscopic inhabitants.

Her goal — as part of the Pathomap study — was to map the genome of the NYC underbelly.

“It’s a fascinating urban ecosystem teeming with microbial life,” Ahsanuddin says in a talk at TEDxCUNY about the project. She and her team discovered, “meningitis in Midtown, stomach flu in the Financial District, and antibiotic-resistant infections in all five boroughs of the city,” she says.

Why should we care? According to Ahsanuddin, the human body is home to 100 trillion microbial cells, making up around five percent of our body weight. Our microbial makeup is dependent on our environment, so it behooves us to know about the molecular composition of our cities. With this information at our disposal, studies like Pathomap could end up reshaping how we view public health and disease reporting.

Pathomap has since expanded into METASub, a global initiative in 39 cities on six continents.

To learn more, watch Ahsanuddin’s whole talk below:

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