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Big Data Reveals Patterns of Urban Bacteria

February 12, 2015  - By 0 Comments
An interactive map allows residents of New York to see what bacteria was mapped at their neighborhoods subway stops. (Image: Wall Street Journal)

An interactive map allows residents of New York to see what bacteria was mapped at their neighborhoods subway stops. (Image: Wall Street Journal)

A Big Data project in New York last summer set out to map germs on the city subway system, reports the Wall Street JournalThe scientists, from Weill Cornell Medical College, identified hundreds of types of bacteria in the transit system as a way to study the microbiology of urban environments.

In the 18-month study, researchers found germs that can cause bubonic plague uptown, meningitis in midtown, stomach trouble in the financial district and antibiotic-resistant infections throughout the boroughs, the WSJ writes. The team also found bacteria that keep the city livable, by sopping up hazardous chemicals or digesting toxic waste. They even tracked the trail of bacteria associated with cheese and sausage, popular snack foods among commuters.

The study is the first genetic profile of a metropolitan transit system. Microbiologists hope to discover new ways to track disease outbreaks, detect bioterrorism attacks, and combat the antibiotic resistance among microbes, which causes about 1.7 million hospital infections every year. Similar projects are taking place in Oregon (classrooms), Virginia (plumbing in buildings), and Chicago (hospitals).

The research team gathered DNA from turnstiles, ticket kiosks, railings and benches, then sequenced the genetic material and sorted it by supercomputer. They compared the results to databases of known bacteria, viruses and other life-forms. The findings uncovered how commuters seed the city subways every day with bacteria from the food they eat, the pets or plants they keep, and their shoes, trash, sneezes and unwashed hands. The team detected signs of 15,152 types of life-forms.

An online database at the Wall Street Journal allows residents to see what microbes were found at the stations they frequent.

 

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Tracy Cozzens

About the Author:

Senior Editor Tracy Cozzens joined GPS World magazine in 2006. She also is editor of GPS World’s newsletters and the sister website Geospatial Solutions. She has worked in government, for non-profits, and in corporate communications, editing a variety of publications for audiences ranging from federal government contractors to teachers.

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