NYC rats were recently studied by a team of pathogen hunters, who discovered the species is far more disease ridden than originally thought. The research scientists at Columbia University, led by neurology and pathology professor Dr. Lipkin, spent an entire year collecting a total of 133 New York City rats in order to find out how they get infected with bacteria and viruses and spread disease to humans. The researchers discovered that these New York City rats not only carried the regular food-borne illnesses they already expected to find, but also completely new pathogens and bacteria science had never encountered before. This study is the first time there has been an attempt to utilize DNA samples to inventory pathogens found in any New York City animal species.
Dr. Lipkin has been studying infected hosts since the 1990s and trying to develop effective methods for scrutinizing pathogen genes. Lipkin has traveled the world researching various animal species, but he has spent a long time wondering what he might find if he studied the disease ridden rats in New York City. With the help of postdoctoral research scientist Cadhla Firth and her team of research scientists, they selected four Manhattan buildings and a park to set up traps for the disease ridden NYC rats in 2012. Catching the rats was a lot harder than they originally thought. She stated that rats in New York were wilier than other typical city rats, and that in order to catch them they had to bait the traps and leave them open for an entire week.
Once they did catch the NYC rats, they took blood, urine, feces and organ tissues samples and extracted DNA from blood samples, uncovering the fact that they are far more disease ridden than originally thought. The scientists uncovered the typical food poisoning bacteria like Salmonella and e.coli. They also discovered fever-producing pathogens like Seoul hantavirus and Leptospira. Surprisingly, they did not find Yersinia pestis, which is a known source of the bubonic plague. However, they were able to identify 18 unknown species linked with viruses known to create diseases in humans.
Dr. Lipkin and his team are now coordinating efforts with both the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to see if they can detect signs of infection in any of the blood samples from the citizens of New York that relate to the pathogens and bacteria they uncovered in the rat’s DNA blood samples. Jay Varma is deputy commissioner for disease control at the New York City Department of Health. He stated that Dr. Lipkin’s study would not result in any urgent changes to the current city’s management of the disease ridden NYC rats, but the research data uncovered by Lipkin’s study would help officials recognize how diseases spread. Until scientists can truly understand how these NYC rats become more disease ridden than they originally thought and how they spread infections to humans, they caution that there is no cause for alarm just yet.
By Valerie Bordeau
Photo by: Flickr