We Try to Recognize Patterns!

June 21st is Global City Sampling Day. On this day, every year around the world, public transport is examined for bacteria and other microorganisms. In 2017, Alexandra Graf, bioinformatics student at FH Campus Wien, and her team took samples for the first time on the Vienna subway.

Ms. Graf, you are doing research in the field of metage­nomics and analyzing microorganisms in different habitats. What made you choose the subway?

The idea came from New York. There, samples have been taken in the subways and the distribution of microorganisms has been documented since 2013. This idea brought about the International MetaSUB Consortium, in which currently more than 50 cities around the world take part. FH Campus Wien has been a member of the consortium since 2016.

What is the goal of MetaSUB?

The mission of the consortium is to explore the totality of micro-organisms in cities and to record them on a microbial world map. The goal is to use metagenomics to better identify and protect against epidemics and infections. 

What kind of work does the consortium actually do?

In the MetaSUB Consortium, surface samples are taken on subways every year on June 21st. The data is then analyzed and compared worldwide. As before, approximately 50 percent of the microorganisms from surface samples are unknown. Therefore, we want to use bioinformatics to find out which microorganisms actually exist, where they come from, what they produce and how they interact. At FH Campus Wien we are working specifically on the development of methods for the analysis of data.

Are there any initial findings?

Studies in other cities have shown that the majority of the microorganisms found on subway surfaces are bacteria that are either associated with human skin or with food. Pathogens, as is often feared by the public, are surprisingly rare. The data from Vienna is currently still undergoing DNA sequencing, but we expect comparable results.

FH Campus Wien is the only university of applied sciences in Austria to do research in the field of metagenomics. What else are you working on besides the subway project?

Our research focuses on the development of methods for metagenome analysis. These methods can be applied in different areas. For example, with our methods we support the Federal Ministry of Defense and Sport in the analysis of environments to prepare for missions. Or we examine samples from companies for contamination. In addition, we are currently working on the development of an app for the user-friendly presentation of analysis results in a project funded by the City of Vienna MA23.

What plans do you have for the future?

We will continue to study urban metagenomics. In addition, antibiotic resistance outside of hospitals and medical environments is on our agenda. And in the future we want to present more of our research work to the public. To make what we are working on transparent and to raise awareness among the public about which organisms live around us and which strains we may or may not be exposed to.