The Bronx is Buggin’ — Study Shows Borough Has Most Diverse Microbes In NYC’s Subway System

The Pseudomonas stutzeri bacterium, commonly found in soil, was the most prevalent subway microbe. Lower Manhattan was its prime hangout. Mason/Cell Systems 2015

As most native New Yorkers, we tend to often not think about all the germs, microbes, and fauna that coats the subways and bus system we ride daily and depend on.  We’re in such denial about them that it’s like breathing — we don’t think about it.

A new study from conducted Weill Cornell Medical College now reveals, that after 18 months of swabbing and collecting samples at every single subway station in New York City (except 2 in Brooklyn which were closed), The Bronx has the most diverse microbes (much like our population) in the entire system.  But no need for alarm since most are not considered a danger with only 12% in that category but even then, researchers claimed there wasn’t enough of them for concern.

One surprising discovery among the 562 microbes that were identified throughout New York City’s subway system was that 48% were previously unknown so I guess NYC really is the center of the universe and the world’s capital.

The study, known as Geospatial Resolution of Human and Bacterial Diversity with City-Scale Metagenomics by Afshinnekoo et al (click the link if you want to read the nitty gritty of the study), was published in CellPress and states the following:

“The metropolitan area of New York City (NYC) is an ideal place to undertake a large-scale metagenomic study because it is the largest and most dense city in the United States; 8.2 million people live on a landmass of only 469 square miles. Moreover, the subway of NYC is the largest mass-transit system in the world (by station count), spreading over 252 miles and used by 1.7 billion people per year (APTA Ridership Report, 2014). This vast urban ecosystem is a precious resource that requires monitoring to sustain and secure it against acts of bio-terrorism, environmental disruptions, or disease outbreaks. Thus we sought to characterize the NYC metagenome by surveying the genetic material of the microorganisms and other DNA present in, around, and below NYC, with a focus on the highly trafficked subways and public areas. We envision this as a first step toward identifying potential bio-threats, protecting the health of New Yorkers, and providing a new layer of baseline molecular data that can be used by the city to create a ‘‘smart city,’’ i.e., one that uses high-dimensional data to improve city planning, management of the mass-transit built environment, and human health.”

NY1 reported, however, that NYC Department of Health considers the ‘deeply flawed’:

“The MTA says the report shows the subway is no more dangerous, at least from germs, than the environment above ground.

A Health Department spokesperson went further, saying, “This report is deeply flawed.  The interpretation of the results is misleading, and the researchers failed to offer alternative, much more plausible explanations for their findings, which is a common best practice for scientific papers.”

While looking through the interactive map available at the Wall Street Journal, I found some following interesting microbes lurking beneath the following stations.

149th Street and Grand Concourse on the 2/4/5 trains:

  • Enterococcus italicus: Associated with Italian cheese. Often found in raw cow’s milk, a species of bacteria called Enterococcus italicus is used in a variety of artisanal Italian cheeses, such as Toma Piemontese cheese and Robiola Piemontese cheese.
  • Lactococcus lactis: Associated with Mozzarella cheese.  Lactococcus lactis is used in production of mozzarella and many other cheeses, including Brie, Camembert, Colby, Gruyère, Cheddar, Parmesan and Roquefort. (Hmm…I wonder if the fact that Giovanni’s Italian Restaurant being located 1/2 a block from the station?)

Yankee Stadium – 161st Street on the 4/B/D trains:

  • Italian cheese yet again!
  • Acinetobacter baumanniiAssociated with Antibiotic resistance.  Acinetobacter baumannii is one of a group of pathogens with a high rate of antibiotic resistance that is responsible for many hospital-acquired infections. The microbe has become known as ‘Iraqibacter’ due to its seemingly sudden emergence in military treatment facilities during the Iraq War.

East 180th Street on the 2/5 trains:

  • Leuconostoc citreum:  Associated with Kimchi and sauerkraut.  A species called Leuconostoc citreum is widely used in the fermentation of the Korean dish kimchi and is also used to ferment cabbage to make sauerkraut

Baychester Avenue on the 5 train:

  • Aerococcus viridans:  Associated with Urinary-tract infections.  A bacteria species called Aerococcus viridans can cause urinary-tract infections, especially among elderly men or people whose immune systems already have been weakened by other ailments. The bacteria also can cause heart-valve infections.
  • Stenotrophomonas maltophilia:  Associated with Respiratory ailments.  Stenotrophomonas maltophilia can cause lung infections. They frequently grow on breathing tubes, such as endotracheal or tracheostomy tubes, and catheters. The bacteria are naturally resistant to many broad-spectrum antibiotics and are dangerous to people whose immune systems have been compromised by other illnesses, such as HIV infection or cystic fibrosis.

Pelham Bay Park on the 6 train:

  • Acinetobacter radioresistens:  Associated with Radiation resistance.  The bacteria belonging to Acinetobacter radioresistens can withstand relatively high levels of radiation and have developed a powerful ability to acquire many different forms of resistance. Some strains are resistant to all commercially available antibiotics.

Woodlawn on the 4 train:

  • Cronobacter sakazakii:  Associated with Meningitis.  Cronobacter sakazakii is one of 14 bacteria species associated with meningitis and its symptoms that researchers detected at dozens of subway stops. It causes meningitis and blood stream infections among infants and a wide variety of infections among adults. It can survive up to two years on a dry surface. It’s been linked to contaminated infant formula, prompting several product recalls in recent years.

Van Cortlandt Park – 242nd Street on the 1 train:

  • Bacillus cereus:  Associated with Food poisoning.  Bacillus cereus can cause foodborne illness, causing severe nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. B. cereus is also known to cause difficult-to-eradicate chronic skin infections. Researchers recently concluded that the species may be indistinguishable from a soil bacteria species called Bacillus thuringiensis, which is a natural insecticide widely used for commercial pest control.
  • Acinetobacter radioresistens:  Associated with Radiation resistance.  The bacteria belonging to Acinetobacter radioresistens can withstand relatively high levels of radiation and have developed a powerful ability to acquire many different forms of resistance. Some strains are resistant to all commercially available antibiotics.

Some of the bacteria found throughout the city and many Bronx stations that can actually be helpful were:

  • Pseudomonas stutzeri:  Associated with Toxic cleanup.  The bacteria of the species called Pseudomonas stutzeri, the most prevalent bacteria species identified so far in New York City’s subways, essentially live on pollutants. With an appetite for carbon tetrachloride and toxic metals, the bacteria are a prime candidate for wastewater treatment applications. The bacteria can be infectious but rarely cause disease.
  • Pseudomonas putida:  Associated with Oil cleanup.  A bacteria species called Pseudomonas putida can break down organic pollutants such as toluene and oil. It is the first patented organism in the world, and, because the bacteria are living creatures, the patent was fought all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. Some strains can live on pure caffeine.

So for now, let’s not panic and take things into perspective.  These things have obviously been lurking and living around us and we’ve still survived.  Maybe it’s best to go back to not thinking about this and BREATHE.

Read more:

Wall Street Journal:  Big Data and Bacteria: Mapping the New York Subway’s DNA

NPR:  What Microbes Lurk In The Subways Of New York? Mysteries Abound


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Ed García Conde

Ed García Conde is a life-long Bronxite who spends his time documenting the people, places, and things that make the borough a special place in the hopes of dispelling the negative stereotypes associated with The Bronx. His writings are often cited by mainstream media and is often consulted for his expertise on the borough's rich history.