Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
A Brooklyn-based typographer took samples from all 22 lines to culture and photograph their distinctive (and colorful) germs.
They say touching the handrail of a subway train is like shaking hands with a hundred people. Just thinking about the variety of bacteria that a commute spreads over your palms is enough to make the average rider squirm. And even though you probably have a dozen tricks up your sleeve to keep those hands germ-free, researchers say they’re mostly pointless.
So Craig Ward and his “Subvisual Subway” project—which captures bacteria found on the New York City subway in oddly beautiful, colorful photos—will leave you amazed and reaching for hand sanitizer.
For the project, the Brooklyn-based designer and typographer rode all 22 lines of the New York City subway, toting sterile sponges and petri dishes on each ride and collecting samples from poles and seats. That, he said in a Science Friday video, earned him some weird looks: “You can get away with most things on the New York subway, but I feel like once you start getting out scientific equipment, people … raise their eyebrows and shuffle down the seat a little bit.”
Ward cut his collection sponges into the shapes of letters and numbers of the subway lines he sampled, stamped them into petri dishes filled with clear bacteria-feeding jelly, and watched them grow. The result: a series of of petri dishes with unique bacterial DNA—“portraits” of each line.
Most of what he had collected were harmless “natural flora,” mold, and yeast, though he did find strains of E. coli, salmonella, and strep and staph bacteria. And when he compared notes with researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College, who spent 18 months swabbing every subway station and then compiling the results into the first-ever map of the city’s microbes, he found that his bacteria profiles of certain neighborhoods reflected a critical part of New York life: food.
“Alongside the creepy stuff, I think it’s great that they were able to isolate bacteria associated with mozzarella and sauerkraut,” he told Science Friday. “New York is such a foodie city, I think it’s perfect that that’s what you find on the subway as well.”