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Street Rats

The rats that scurry about the subways, alleys, and even apartments of New York carry harbor a number of known and novel pathogens, researchers led by Columbia University's Ian Lipkin report in mBio this week.

"Everybody's looking all over the world [for pathogens], in all sorts of exotic places, including us," Lipkin tells the New York Times. "But nobody's looking right under our noses."

Lipkin and his colleagues trapped 133 rats from five different sites in the city. Using PCR-based assays, they screened the rats for 18 bacterial and two protozoan human pathogens, and to gauge the viruses the rats carry, they conducted a viral metagenomic study of the rodents.

One hundred and nineteen of the rats carried some sort of microbial agent, the researchers report. Those agents included bacteria known to cause gastroenteritis in humans like enteropathogenic Escherichia coli, Clostridium difficile, and Salmonella enterica. The rodents also harbored viruses like Seoul hantavirus, rotaviruses, and hepaciviruses, including two novel hepaciviruses.

They didn't carry, the Times notes, some of the nastier things that rats can have, like bubonic plague.

Still, Lipkin says New York should monitor and control its rat population.

"I think people are going to have to start paying attention to this," he tells the Times. "But that's [Mayor] Bill de Blasio's problem. I'm just doing the science."