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. Smoke from the fires hangs over Brazil.
    Environment

    Why the Amazon Is on Fire

    The rash of wildfires now consuming the Amazon rainforest can be blamed on a host of human factors, from climate change to deforestation to Brazilian politics.

  2. a map of London Uber driver James Farrar's trip data.
    Transportation

    For Ride-Hailing Drivers, Data Is Power

    Uber drivers in Europe and the U.S. are fighting for access to their personal data. Whoever wins the lawsuit could get to reframe the terms of the gig economy.

  3. Graduates react near the end of commencement exercises at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, U.S.
    Life

    Where Do College Grads Live? The Top and Bottom U.S. Cities

    Even though superstar hubs top the list of the most educated cities, other cities are growing their share at a much faster rate.

  4. An aerial photo of downtown Miami.
    Life

    The Fastest-Growing U.S. Cities Aren’t What You Think

    Looking at the population and job growth of large cities proper, rather than their metro areas, uncovers some surprises.

  5. Transportation

    Atlanta’s Big Transit Vote Is a Referendum on Race

    As suburban Gwinnett County weighs a MARTA expansion, changing demographics and politics may decide the Georgia capital's transportation future.

×