There are creepy creatures lurking in the subway — and they’re not just rats and insects.
Christopher Mason, a geneticist at Weill Cornell Medicine, has been studying the microscopic ecosystem in the subway, already identifying more than 600 varieties of microbes. And on Tuesday he descended below ground again.
Equipped with nylon swabs and latex gloves, Mason and his team were back in the subway to swab wooden benches, handrails and train seats to collect microbial material as part of an international expansion of his project, called MetaSub.
“We want to see how it looks between different cities — so different humidity, different temperature elevations, different people, as well as different habits,” Mason said between swabs at the 68th St. No. 6 station. He is the principal investigator in a 2015 study of the subways.
There will be 400 scientific investigators and student volunteers in 54 cities, like Beijing and Paris, swabbing transit equipment to collect about 12,000 samples. This will help Mason and his team sketch the life that’s invisible to the naked eye.
“When most people look at the railing, they think, ‘Oh, maybe it’s just steel, so there’s nothing there.’ But it’s actually teeming with life,” Mason said. “These are surfaces touched by millions of people every day and they contain as much or in some cases more mystery than soil you could find in a rain forest.”
Still, there’s no need to break out the hazmat suits. Most of the microbes are harmless to humans, though Mason said there were some antibiotic-resistant bacteria that could be related to pathogens. Among the human and animal DNA found, there is plenty of microbial evidence showing that New Yorkers like to eat as they travel. Mason said he’s found bacteria associated with mozzarella cheese, kimchi and sauerkraut.
“We can see all the remnants, basically, of either what people look like, what they're doing and what they're eating,” Mason said. “Essentially, it's a genetic portrait.”
For Sofia Ahsanuddin, 21, director of the MetaSub International Consortium, which is organizing the sample collection, the project changed how she travels on the subway.
“I never sit on the wooden benches because they have the most DNA out of all of the surfaces that we swabbed in the transit system,” she said.
Councilman Ben Kallos (D-Manhattan), whose district covers Weill Cornell, joined Mason’s team to help the city earn bragging rights on the diversity of its microorganisms.
“New York City is bigger and better than anywhere else, so I’m assuming the same for our microbes,” Kallos said. “We should have more microbes from all over the world and in higher concentration because there is no subway system like ours.”