NEW YORK — The young woman with the clipboard had an unusual request.
It was a chilly Thursday morning a few weeks ago at a new dog park on the East River in Queens. The sun glinted hard on the choppy water. Off-leash dogs ran up and down little hills of concrete as the woman explained her mission to the owner of a mutt named Alice.
“Will you be willing to give us your dog’s poop?” she asked.
Alice’s owner said yes. So did a woman with an Irish terrier named Scarlet.
“I do research myself, so I’m very sympathetic to people who collect data, whatever data it is,” said Scarlet’s owner, Annie Duflo.
So, gladly, did the owner of a 120-pound Alaskan malamute, Juno. “Juno’s poop is pretty big, so everybody usually runs away from it, not toward it,” said his owner, Shaun Hostutler, who works for the Air Force.
Each dog owner filled out a form and handed it over, along with the goods, in a plastic bag. The woman with the clipboard, Aditi Naik, placed them in a plastic foam box filled with ice packs.
Naik is a graduate student at New York University. The dogs of Hunters Point South Park had just contributed to a survey of the microbial life of New York City’s pets and pests.
Researchers have been going park to park to collect 100 canine samples, 20 from each borough. They are amassing similar citywide data sets from cats, rats, mice, pigeons and cockroaches.
The stool sampling is part of an ambitious project by Jane Carlton, the director of NYU’s Center for Genomics and Systems Biology, to map what she calls “the NYC microbiome”: the tiny organisms that thrive in living things and the environment. Her team’s other forays have examined sewage, soil and ATMs (the keypads turned out to be covered with bacteria found in human skin, food bits and mold).
The animal feces study, funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, is particularly dear to Carlton, a parasitologist who has done extensive research on malaria in India. Her work is focused on the kingdom of parasites known as protists, a higher order of cell life than bacteria or viruses.
“When people look at the microbiome, they tend to only look at the bacteria, not at the protists,” Carlton said. “Protists are very prevalent, and very variable, and they haven’t got as much press.”
The researchers hope to learn if the digestive tract of a terrier on Staten Island is host to the same sorts of bugs as that of a poodle on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
“Are there certain protists that are found in dogs in a specific area?” asked Julia Maritz, a doctoral student of Carlton’s whose dissertation includes the project. “Or does it depend on age, or diet? We’re also looking to compare across species, how dogs compare to cats.”
By the end of the month, the researchers hope to start extracting DNA from the samples and looking for patterns.
The purpose of the microbiome study is simply to learn what’s out there.
“Characterizing the world around us is very important,” Carlton said, “especially the microbial world we can’t see.”
To get samples from other species, Carlton has enlisted the aid of a Fordham University biologist, Jason Munshi-South, who studies the travel patterns and microevolution of rodents in the city. He and his students are trapping rats and mice in medians and parks, and one of his students is swabbing the posteriors of live pigeons. The NYU team has also been collecting cockroaches from around the city.
Cat feces for the study have been obtained from shelters, feral cats and from cats owned by NYU scientists. So far, there is a shortfall from cats on Staten Island.
“Day-of is what we’re looking for; with a little kitty litter on it is fine,” Carlton said.
For Maritz, approaching dog owners is “always a little awkward” but has become easier. “We’ve gotten some strange looks, but nobody has thought we were crazy yet.”
A few days after the Queens collection trip, Naik got off the 6:43 a.m. train in the Bronx, near Riverdale, and headed up the hill to Henry Hudson Park. On the way, she spotted a dog in the telltale posture.
“I see a sample there, should I ask for it?” she wondered aloud. The dog’s owner, Margie Nunn, a teacher, did not bat an eyelash as she surrendered a bag to Naik.
At the park, Shelly Galati, a retired executive, volunteered the services of her chocolate lab, Harry.
“Riverdale is very liberal, we’re very community-minded people,” Galati said. “Anybody who needs anything or any information, we’re happy to help.”
She handed over the bag, and Naik dropped it in her icebox.