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Phones to be probed for microbes at biotech summit in Madison

October 9, 2018

An international effort to map bacteria and other microbes on subways and other urban environments is coming to Madison Tuesday, when more than 300 people attending a biotech meeting will be able to submit their smart phones for swabbing.

Participants at the Wisconsin Biohealth Summit will later get personalized reports about DNA found on their phones, which could include germs from their skin, dander from pets or residue from breakfast, along with mysterious molecules that have yet to be identified.

“Every time we do this experiment anywhere, it’s a snapshot of genetic diversity that brings new discovery,” said Christopher Mason, a UW-Madison graduate and geneticist at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York who is bringing the project to his home state.

An initial study of the New York City subway system a few years ago detected more than 600 known bacteria, viruses, fungi and animal species, including rats. Nearly half of the DNA collected were unknown — likely from insects, plants, animals or microbes that haven’t been catalogued.

Similar testing is taking place at subways, airports, bus systems and other public places on all continents — even on helicopters in Antarctica. Phones have been swabbed at a few meetings in other states and countries.

“Oftentimes at a conference, you don’t get an experience,” said Lisa Johnson, CEO of BioFoward, which puts on the summit. “We have all these attendees now who will experience something.”

Solutions and sequencers used to process the samples are made by San Diego-based Illumina, which has operations in Madison.

The project, called MetSUB, was inspired by an experience Mason had a few years ago on the subway in New York. He watched as his daughter, then 1 year old, licked a subway pole.

“I knew that microbial transmission had just occurred,” said Mason, a native of Racine. “I thought, what on Earth was it?”

By sampling poles, benches, doors and turnstiles at hundreds of subway stations, Mason and his team detected DNA from beetles, flies, fish and rats, along with a variety of foods.

About 12 percent of bacteria found were associated with disease, including strep and E.coli. Samples also revealed drug-resistant bacteria.

The goal is to establish a baseline map of urban microbiomes, study variation from place to place, track antimicrobial resistance and mine the data for possible new drugs, Mason said.

“When you look at a rain forest, you have these romanticized visions of … new species … new cancer drugs,” he said. “The same thing is true of a subway pole. You look at the pole, and you should be standing in awe … about the biodiscovery capacity of what could be there.”

Mason said he suspects he might pick up traces of a well-known liquid product linked to Wisconsin on the phones of biohealth summit participants.

“There’s a lot of microbreweries in Madison,” he said. “We are expecting some hops DNA.”

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