Confirmed: NYC rats carry nasty pathogens

Referred to as a “recipe for a public health nightmare,” researchers from Columbia University recently discovered that some rats studied in New York City contain a variety of viruses and other pathogens— including those that cause foodborne illness in humans, others never seen before in New York, and some that are new toscience altogether.

According to an article in the New York Times, this is the first attempt to use DNA to catalog pathogens in any animal species in New York City. The initial results come from a study involving 133 of Manhattan’s rats and were recently published in the journal, mBio.

Over the years it has become obvious that the health of the human population is intimately linked to the health of animals. However, according to Ian Lipkin, a professor of neurology and pathology at Columbia, “everybody’s looking all over the world, in all sorts of exotic places, including us,” said “But nobody’s looking right under our noses.”

And that is why beginning in 2012 a team of “pathogen hunters” selected four buildings and one park in Manhattan, set traps, and collected rats to take samples of blood, urine, feces and tissues from a number of organs.

As stated in the article, after the scientists extracted DNA from the samples, they sifted through the gene fragments and looked for disease agents previously found in rats. They discovered bacteria such as Salmonella and a strain of E. coli that causes food poisoning. They also found pathogens that caused fevers, such as Seoul hantavirus, never before seen in New York, and Leptospira. Through this step of their study however, they also did not find some of the worst types of bacteria that infect rats in other parts of the world, such as Yersinia pestis, which causes bubonic plague.

Next, the scientists searched the rats for new species of viruses and identified 18 unknown species related to viruses already shown to cause diseases in humans. Two of the new species, were similar to the virus that causes hepatitis C, a discovery that David Patrick, the director of the School of Population and Public Health at the University of British Columbia, called “groundbreaking.”

While Patrick said that these viruses may or may not have any links to human illness, nor will rats give humans hepatitis C, it is helpful to be able to describe them in detail due to the fact that scientists may be able to glean clues from the rat viruses to fight the disease, which affects about 150 million people worldwide.

“It’s still a few steps to go before you can call it an animal model, but I think overall it’s a really exciting finding,” said Alexander Ploss, a molecular virologist at Princeton University.

While experts say it’s not time to wage a war on rats yet and that no immediate changes will be made on how New York City deals with rats, Dr. Lipkin and his colleagues are now collaborating with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to look for signs of infection from some of the rat pathogens in the blood samples of New Yorkers.

“We live in a world where humans are in the minority,” Jay Varma, the deputy commissioner for disease control at the New York City Department of Health. “We as a society probably haven’t done enough to understand the true ecology of bacteria and viruses.”

For more information, click here.

Comments are closed.