Researchers Sample Bacteria at Local Light Rail Stations as Part of Larger Study

SACRAMENTO -- You can expect to be surrounded at one of Sacramento's light rails stations given the time of day.

But few here would think the crowd they're really in is a crowd of bacteria.

"If we really want to understand how bacteria interact with humans, and perhaps play a role in health and disease, we have to first start by mapping and understanding which bacteria we're talking about," said Rob Crawford, professor of biological sciences at Sacramento State.

And this is the first stage of a first-of-its-kind mapping process that's put the city of Sacramento in league with 80 cities across the world, focusing on what microbes, specifically bacteria, may live at subway and urban transit areas.

"After she dips into the buffer solution, she's gonna go ahead and swab rather consistently across the number pads, where people are really, really interacting with this machine," Crawford said.

The team doesn't wear gloves to protect themselves, but rather, to keep them from contaminating samples commissioned by Cornell University as part of the Meta-SUB project.

Researchers will be taking into account more than what ends up in the vials that they are collecting the samples in. They're also taking into account the fact that this is an open-air station, that it's near a freeway and that the samples might be affected by being under an overhang.

"These microbes can be good for us. They help educate our immune system. They help us fight off diseases. So these bacteria that live on us are actually a good thing," said Sac State grad student Jaime Fuentes.

And that is not how most people think about bacteria as they rush for the Purell.

And then there's this:

"We are not all colonized with the same bacteria good or bad," said Shaleni Singh, a Sac State graduate researcher.

And it's that diversity and its location, once what is where, is mapped across the world that could lead to new cures for disease or revamped city design based on zones for certain bacteria.