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Next to You on the Subway

Norman R. Pace, a microbiologist at the University of Colorado Boulder, pioneered the use of DNA to study microbes. He has searched for extremophiles (organisms that can exist in extreme environments) in the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park and once descended in the submersible Alvin to examine microbial life on hydrothermal vents. He greets visitors, like any microbiologist who has seen too much, with a fist bump.

Dr. Pace has also surveyed an exotic environment much more familiar to New Yorkers: the subway. The goal? To find out exactly what we’re breathing down there — and if any of its invisible critters are cause for worry. His study also provides a “pre-event” baseline, an idea of what’s normal — useful in the event of a bioterrorism attack, recent flooding or other catastrophe.

At each of seven sites — Times Square, Grand Central (the No. 7 line as well as Nos. 4, 5 and 6), Union Square, Chambers Street, Bowling Green and the abandoned IRT station at City Hall — Dr. Pace’s team collected two cubic meters of air, about equal to the volume a person breathes every day.

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