Barcelona joins MetaSUB, a project that aims to map the subway microbiome of 54 cities worldwide. The outcomes could help understanding the spread of infectious disease and understand better the human microbiome.

crg_city_sampling_day_metasubThe human microbiome is an exploding field, gathering a lot of interest from researchers, biotech and investors. However, do cities have a microbiome too? Apparently yes, and the most interesting part of it might be the subway.

To find out more about this urban microbiome, cities all over the world are swabbing their subway platforms during Global City Sampling Day (21st of June, by the way). The samples are then taken to the lab, where the caught microbes have their DNA and RNA sequenced.


Researchers from the Centre for Genomic Regulation collecting samples from Barcelona’s subway. (Source: CRG)

The idea of this urban microbe-mapping was born in 2013 at Weill Cornell Medicine (New York). The project evolved to an international consortium of laboratories called MetaSUB. It wants to create a worldwide ‘DNA map’ of microbiomes in mass transit systems.

With the DNA data, the project wants to study how this ‘urban microbiome’ changes with variables like weather, cleanliness, construction materials and even the socio-economic level of neighborhoods.

In Barcelona, the work is being carried out by the Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG). Besides contributing with additional sampling points, they hope to improve the scientific methods involved – from metagenomic analysis to data visualization.


Storing samples of the ‘subway microbiome’. (Source: CRG)

While the collected data already serves as a sort of BioArt city map, with optimized methods it could also answer some interesting questions in the microbiome field – particularly whether there is a correlation between the microbes found in subway stations and the microbiome of people living in those places.

Getting a clearer picture of how the microbiome of an environment is related to our own could provide insights into certain ‘microbiome diseases’. For example, are there special bacteria (or a lack of a certain species) in an area where many people have a disease like Crohn’s? If so, could there be space in biotech for a sort of regional probiotics?

Another field where this data can be really useful is public health. Knowing what grows where (a sort of biotech layer to the emerging ‘smart cities’) would help understand the spread of infectious disease.

In fact, one of the things investigated by the MetaSUB project is already under the radar of biotech. Evaluating which materials grow less pathogens could help city planners make build cleaner public buildings. Companies like Pylote (France) are developing materials that ‘resist’ bacteria growth. Maybe we could have microbiome materials too?

Feature Image Credit: Pixabay

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