Subway Microbes: Friend or Enemy?


Slimy poles on the subway worry me. Should they? Formulated using metallic materials, no reason exists why an oily film should develop naturally on the surface. Such was the dialogue between me and the car’s pole, meant to keep me from falling into yet a larger mirkier floor.

As flu season arrives, people worry that they will serve as humanity’s first epidemic victim. Will my epitaph read, “Here lies patient 001, the first of the 21st Century’s plague victim that led to the demise of civilization”? A young woman repeatedly sneezed as worried onlookers gazed. I said “bless you” twice. After her third sneeze, I stopped the blessing.

The subway stopped. Moving to a different section of the car, my hand slid to a new, yet warmer section of the pole. A human definitely touched this slice of the metal. What did they touch prior to grasping? What microbial beasts do we now share? Are they my friends or my enemies?

Microbes assail us from three categories. Bacteria generally swim or crawl on surfaces using flagella to propel to their destinations. Viruses tend not to move about their environment by their own energy but rather through vehicles. Think of the girl sneezing. Finally parasites, a complex category, invade through more advanced opportunities such as food or insect bites.

If anything, the oily surface on the metal and on my hands protects me. Bacteria love water. Even if I contacted the bacteria that would love to inhabit me, I stand ground with thousands of years of immunologic ancestry.

Some would argue that our civilization’s decreasing exposure to bug baths renders increasing opportunity for other diseases. Allergic rhinitis, asthma and possibly other immune diseases, proponents claim, arose from a lack of attack targets. Needing to stay active, our immune systems respond by reacting to other foreign or self agents.

Microbes and mammals share a long story. The powerhouse of our cells, mitochondria, are themselves a unicellular organism. Some studies have even linked microbe imbalance to cardiovascular and metabolic diseases. One study showed in mouse models of heart disease that restoring a bacteria to their diet led to an eradication of the disease. Translating these results to viable human therapy remains lacking, however.

So when you get on the 6 heading south. Peer at that long glistening oily poll. Go ahead, touch away. I’ll use my hand sanitizer anyway.

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