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Germs and Hygiene

What do the bubonic plague, Swiss cheese and anthrax have in common?

They all ride the New York City subway!

For 18 months, Dr Christopher Mason and a team of scientists from Weill Cornell Medical College swabbed the New York City subway system in order to catalogue and map the billions of microorganisms that cling to the subway’s seats, doors, handrails, ticket machines and turnstiles.

The result, a city-wide ‘PathoMap', found DNA from more than 500 species of bacteria, including 67 known to cause illness.

The team found meningitis at Times Square, a trace of anthrax in a train carriage and bacteria associated with the bubonic plague on a garbage bin at a station in uptown Manhattan.

However, the scientists were keen to downplay the risks to New York’s residents, noting that the traces were very small and that rats were likely responsible for the plague bacteria.

The PathoMap also reflected the different eating habits of New York’s neighbourhoods.

Swiss cheese bacteria turned up most frequently in midtown Manhattan, while the bacteria used to ferment cabbage for kimchi showed up in the financial district. And all around the city, traces of the mozzarella used on New York’s famous pizzas were found.

Rather than trying to scare the public, Dr Mason said that the PathoMap represented a ‘normal, healthy metagenome profile of a city.’ However, he did remind people to always wash their hands!

Watch Germs and Hygiene to learn more about bacteria and why washing our hands is so important for preventing the spread of disease.