Urban microbes come out of the shadows

Jul 6, 2015

by Rachel Ehrenberg

Embedded in the filth and chaos of the world’s great metropolises, amid the people, pigeons, cockroaches and rats, there is a teeming world of bacteria, viruses, fungi and protists that scientists are only now surveying. Microbes are everywhere: on trains, pavements and lifts; in parks, libraries, hospitals and schools. Most are innocuous, some are friendly, and a handful cause death and disease. But the vast majority are unknown.

Researchers described results of early forays into this terra incognita at the Microbes in the City conference on 19 June, hosted by the New York Academy of Sciences and New York University (NYU) on the 40th floor of an antiseptic-looking glass office tower in Manhattan. “We’re really at the infancy of a very interesting scientific endeavour,” said Joel Ackelsberg, a medical epidemiologist for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. “Right now, we know very little.”

Researchers are not even sure how to survey this strange landscape. There are competing techniques for detecting, quantifying and keeping track of which microbes are doing what in the built environment, and where. But researchers believe that efforts could lead to new approaches for monitoring bioterrorism, tracking disease outbreaks or assessing the impact of storms and pollution.

Each month, high-throughput techniques allow scientists to sequence roughly 1,000 microbial genomes from samples collected in various environments, said computational biologist Curtis Huttenhower of the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, Massachusetts. That is an impressive amount of data, but it is dwarfed by the unfamiliar. Christopher Mason, a computational geneticist at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City, told the conference how a baseline survey of genetic material from surfaces in the city’s subway system had uncovered DNA from almost 1,700 known taxa, mostly harmless bacteria. But 48% of the genetic material did not match anything yet identified. “Half the world under our fingertips is unknown,” said Mason.


Read the full article by clicking the name of the source located below.

3 comments on “Urban microbes come out of the shadows

  • The worst thing to do is isolate ourselves from these life forms; the more we carry on regardless the more resistant to them we become and remain.

    “Eat a peck of dirt a day.”; that’s your actual quote from the Bible that is.



    Report abuse

  • @OP – Embedded in the filth and chaos of the world’s great metropolises, amid the people, pigeons, cockroaches and rats, there is a teeming world of bacteria, viruses, fungi and protists that scientists are only now surveying.

    A lot of the urban problem is those messy humans – scattering food-waste and rubbish in densely packed areas, where many simply abdicate responsibility for the environment. Of course some of the mess is spreading to be a global rather than an urban problem.
    The urban problem is just a specialist form of microbial habitat and feral animal ecosystem.



    Report abuse

Leave a Reply

View our comment policy.