Image of the recently created PathoMap.

We all know that the New York subway system is not the cleanest place on Earth. Of course, all kinds of horrid bacteria live there. That is no surprise to anyone. However, some may be a bit surprised to learn that horrid bacteria live everywhere. Really. Bacteria are on your phone, on your clothes, on your hands, and (yes) even in your mouth. The human body is, in many ways, an ecosystem. Some 90% of the cells in our bodies are not human cells; rather, they belong (or belonged) to other organisms.

To understand this, you need to understand where we came from.

We evolved from tiny, single celled organisms. Over the course of billions of years, we incorporated other viruses, cells, and even lifeforms into our bodies and our DNA. Along the way, we encountered many nasty organisms. As the Black Death attests, a number of people died as a result of these encounters; however, those that survived became stronger. They built up resistances to these invaders, and they passed these resistances on to us—to everyone living today.

We know this. We know that there are trillions of bacteria everywhere. We know that there are some 100 trillion bacterial cells in the human body alone. Yet, we are continually "surprised" when a new study comes out about diseases.

I suppose this is rather understandable. Although we know bacteria are out there, we can't see them, and we certainly don't know all their names. Consequently, when someone does tell us their names, we are often a tad horrified.

Ultimately, this discussion surfaces because researchers from Cornell University have, for the first time, provided a map of the microbes that can be found in the New York subway system. In their study, they identified more than 1,688 types of bacteria. Oh, and one of them was the bubonic plague. If that's not enough, they located one station that even supports a "marine ecosystem." This little sea habitat came about thanks to the hurricane that hit the city some years ago.

When hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, it flooded many of the subways. As a result, a lot of the bacteria and other cells found there are from marine habitats. And it doesn't end there either. As it turns out, some 48% of the samples matched no known organism.

Image credit: PathoMap

In a press release, the study's senior investigator, Christopher Mason, says the research shows the resilience of the human body as, obviously, no one has had the plague or anthrax or any other such horror recently: "The presence of these microbes and the lack of reported medical cases is truly a testament to our body's immune system, and our innate ability to continuously adapt to our environment," he asserts.

Mason continues, "Our data show evidence that most bacteria in these densely populated, highly-trafficked transit areas are neutral to human health, and much of it is commonly found on the skin or in the gastrointestinal tract. These bacteria may even be helpful, since they can out-compete any dangerous bacteria."

The results of this project, which initially began in 2013, were published Thursday in an interactive “pathogen” urban map by New York’s Weill Cornell Medical College. You can head there and scroll around to see what bacteria lurks at your favorite subway stop.


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