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Google Maps for bacteria? How NYC subway swab could change public health

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  • ALISON STEWART, PBS ANCHOR:

    You might have seen the headlines the past day or two, about how scientists in New York searched the city's subway system and, perhaps not surprisingly, found all kinds of germs that could cause everything from like common cold to meningitis.

    Now, health department officials immediately downplayed any serious threat and wise-cracking New Yorkers joked about the story, but the work is actually part of a very serious effort to bolster the public health system.

    Joining us now is a scientist whose work generated those headlines. Dr. Christopher Mason is a geneticist at Weill Cornell Medical College.

    Doctor, what did you do exactly in the subway?

  • DR. CHRISTOPHER MASON, WEILL CORNELL MEDICAL COLLEGE:

    So, we wanted to build the first molecular map of New York City, kind of like a Google Maps, where you can zoom in and see what molecules are present at different areas of the city to better classify, track, and understand how the dynamics of the services that we all touch every day, how they change over time. But to do that, we first need to build a baseline.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    And how did you do that? Literally went into the subway and start swabbing?

  • DR. CHRISTOPHER MASON:

    We did, indeed.

    So, we had a mixture of high school students, graduate students, public health students, medical students, down swarming the subway system and bringing nylon swabs and swabbing for three minutes, they collect enough DNA, and bring it back to the lab, which track DNA, and then sequence it — essentially generating 10 billion small molecules of DNA that's all around the subway system.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    What was the thing you found that you thought, didn't expect that?

  • DR. CHRISTOPHER MASON:

    So, the most surprising part of the study was that about 48 percent of all the DNA molecules we find don't match any organism that's known to humankind. So, there's really a wealth of discovery literally under our fingertips that we've never seen before until this study.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    What is the broader mission of this study?

  • DR. CHRISTOPHER MASON:

    So, we're trying to — with this baseline, we're trying to then expand out to see how does this change within one city over time, so you can look at sort of seasonal shifts of what happens to what we call the microbiome, which is the ecosystems of microorganisms we touch every day.

    And then, also, in a larger sense, we want to be sort of a smart city so we could use this to look, essentially, for changes in this baseline that might indicate changes for disease surveillance or potentially could contextualize a bioterrorism event if it were to occur.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    Is this something that can be applied to other public transportation systems?

  • DR. CHRISTOPHER MASON:

    Absolutely. So, we — you know, part of the context is not only within the city over time, but comparing New York to other cities. So, we want — essentially, there is some work being done in Boston. We have begun swabbing in Sao Paulo in Brazil, also been looking in Paris, and Tokyo, and some work is in Hong Kong. And we also have collaborations with Shanghai. So, the larger goal is to really have molecular views of many cities.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    And I'm curious if this applies in any way to all the discussions we have been having about — and people have talking about measles?

  • DR. CHRISTOPHER MASON:

    Looking ahead, what we could do with this type of studies and this type of data is to make it even faster. So, there are technologies and some of them are in my laboratory today, where you can actually sequence DNA as it appears in real time.

    So, in that case, you would then know not after someone got sick, essentially, but you'd know as the piece of DNA or RNA, or as the virus or bacteria appears in a city, you could potentially track it in real time and then respond to it much faster. So, it could potentially impact all the millions of people who live in the cities and billions of people who ride the subway or transit — mass transit every year.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    Dr. Christopher Mason, thanks for sharing your science.

  • DR. CHRISTOPHER MASON:

    Thanks. A pleasure being here.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    We shook hands, by the way.

  • DR. CHRISTOPHER MASON:

    OK. Yes, yes, and fist bumps. Yes.

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