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.
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