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Public transit is just as gross as you thought and that’s why microbiologists love it

Colorado post-docs and undergrads endure the swabbing of seats and handrails in the name of science, part of a worldwide effort to ‘map the human biome’ and sort good germs from bad

Michael Booth
The Colorado Sun
UC Boulder lab technician Blaire Volbers takes particle samples from the air in a Boulder bus on Thursday.
Olivia Sun/The Colorado Sun

As University of Colorado student Alise Gladbach scrubs a testing swab hard on the stainless steel ticket counter in the RTD transit station near the Pearl Street mall in Boulder, ticket seller Laura Erickson watches from behind a sheet of bulletproof glass.

Erickson appears safe, but she is not necessarily calm. As Gladbach’s swab turns an immediate and alarming soot color from the microbes she is picking up, Erickson’s eyes grow wider and wider.

“I thought I had just cleaned that,” Erickson said, sounding far less certain about her workstation upkeep than she was just a few moments before.



Successfully absorbed into the tip of Gladbach’s now-filthy swab, thousands of individual microbes were shipped in dry ice by evening and processed for their DNA breakdown on supercomputers in New York. Slightly skeeved-out undergraduate students just like her, the world over, spent Thursday collecting swabs from the highest-traffic spots of transit facilities from Boulder to Berlin to Bogota.

Thursday’s swabbing on and near buses in Boulder, which followed a marathon effort Wednesday on DIA’s A Train and connecting lines, is part of a six-year international effort to detail “the human biome” and see what we can’t see.



Gross? Absolutely.

Vital to science? Indubitably.

Read more via The Colorado Sun.


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