A portrait of some of the bacteria found on a New York City L train. Craig Ward

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.”

Bacteria portraits of the B, D, F, and M lines. (Craig Ward)
Among the bacteria found on the S line is E. coli, shown here in pink and red. (Craig Ward)
Streptococcus, in yellow, can be found in the bacterial portrait of the 6 line. (Craig Ward)
The fuzzy spot on the portrait of the D line is mold. (Craig Ward)

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. photo: A lone tourist in Barcelona, one of several global cities that have seen a massive crash in Airbnb bookings.
    Coronavirus

    Can Airbnb Survive Coronavirus?

    The short-term rental market is reeling from the coronavirus-driven tourism collapse. Can the industry’s dominant player stage a comeback after lockdowns lift?

  2. Illustration: two roommates share a couch with a Covid-19 virus.
    Coronavirus

    For Roommates Under Coronavirus Lockdown, There Are a Lot of New Rules

    Renters in apartments and houses share more than just germs with their roommates: Life under coronavirus lockdown means negotiating new social rules.

  3. photo: South Korean soldiers attempt to disinfect the sidewalks of Seoul's Gagnam district in response to the spread of COVID-19.
    Coronavirus

    Pandemics Are Also an Urban Planning Problem

    Will COVID-19 change how cities are designed? Michele Acuto of the Connected Cities Lab talks about density, urbanization and pandemic preparation.  

  4. A pedestrian wearing a protective face mask walks past a boarded up building in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. Governors from coast to coast Friday told Americans not to leave home except for dire circumstances and ordered nonessential business to shut their doors.
    Equity

    The Geography of Coronavirus

    What do we know so far about the types of places that are more susceptible to the spread of Covid-19? In the U.S., density is just the beginning of the story.

  5. Traffic-free Times Square in New York City
    Maps

    Mapping How Cities Are Reclaiming Street Space

    To help get essential workers around, cities are revising traffic patterns, suspending public transit fares, and making more room for bikes and pedestrians.

×