This New York City subway train may look empty, but it’s teeming with invisible visitors. (Photo: Getty Images)
The next time you take the subway in New York City, you might be riding alongside DNA strands of bubonic plague and anthrax, in addition to infection-causing bacteria resistant to drugs, according to a study published in the journal Cell Systems.
Before you panic, the “PathoMap” developed by researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College is actually good news. Of the 637 known species of bacteria, fungi, viruses and other organisms the scientists have been using nylon swabs to pick up and analyze since June 2013, the vast majority were nonpathogenic and basically the same sorts of bacteria you’d find on human skin or within the body.
Others were microorganisms that bear the imprint of nature, like the ones swept into a subway station that was flooded during Superstorm Sandy back in 2012. They were the same kinds of germs also found in the marine life and other aquatic environments.
Researchers believe their analysis and PathoMap can serve as a “baseline assessment” of sorts, where retesting the subways, stations and parks can help in the long run for potentially tracking the spread of disease, reducing bioterrorism threats, and maintaining the health of NYC’s population.
Interestingly, around half the sequences of DNA the researchers found were totally unknown to this point, not appearing on the radars of the CDC or the National Center for Biotechnology Information — although NYC folks come into contact with them every single day. This just means there are tons more undiscovered germs and organisms to explored by scientists in the future.
Now, roughly 12 percent of the bacteria the researchers uncovered were linked to disease — including some live, antibiotic-resistant bacteria — but not associated with any widespread illness. And looping back to that bit about the DNA fragments of bubonic plague and anthrax, yes, these strands were swabbed and discovered in the study… but not alive and at very low levels.
So there’s no need to fret. In fact, the researchers say pathogenic microbes like these pose no threat to our health; human immune systems are just that strong. However, it’s not a bad idea to remember that riding the subway means you’re riding with germs.
Aaron Clark, MD, a family medicine physician at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, says to be smart while riding public transit to avoid getting sick. “Don’t eat or touch your mouth or nose while you’re onboard, use your elbow to cover a cough or sneeze, and wash hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water as soon as you’re able after you get off,” he tells Yahoo Health. “Hand sanitizers can help to reduce contamination with viruses and some bacteria if you don’t have access to soap and water.”
Ultimately, though, don’t be afraid of public places, despite the opportunity to encounter germs. The scientists of the current study said their findings likely reflect natural, normal city life. Yes, we all share the same world — even viruses, bacteria, and other unseen organisms.