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Bacteria can travel thousands of kilometres through airborne dust: study

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Bacteria with the potential to affect humans and animals can cross oceans and continents through airborne dust, according to new research out of Israel.


In a study published last month in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences, authors Daniella Gat, Ralf Zimmermann and Yinon Rudich analyzed airborne dust collected in Rehovot, Israel. They used DNA sequencing to learn about bacteria found in the dust, and used trajectory modelling to determine the dust had come from places such as North Africa, Saudi Arabia, and Syria.


What they found was that when winds lift dust off the ground, attached bacteria go with it. That airborne dust can carry diverse bacterial “communities” to locations hundreds, or even thousands, of kilometres away. When the dust settles again in a new location, the attached bacteria can alter environmental chemistry and affect human and animal health.


“In a changing climate, it is expected that the intensity and frequency of dust storms will increase, expanding the geographical range of the airborne bacteria,” the authors wrote, “resulting in the introduction of dust-borne bacteria to previously pristine habitats, terrestrial and marine alike.”


Researchers don’t yet know exactly how these bacteria affect the environments they land in, but the study said they can search for clues in the origins of the bacteria. For example, bacteria found in airborne dust can come from soils, water bodies, plants, landfills, livestock farms and other sources.


“Different bacterial functions are associated with these different environments,” the study reads.


“Thus, examining the functional genes of airborne bacteria and comparing them to the surrounding environments can provide knowledge on the possible sources of the airborne bacteria and their potential functioning upon deposition.”


Scientists may be able to find other clues about the impacts these bacteria can have on their environments by better understanding their genes.


For example, when the authors examined the genes of the dust-carried bacteria, they found some of the bacteria were more likely to be antibiotic resistant than bacteria found in seawater, on plant surfaces or within soils.


The spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria could have potential impacts on the health of humans, livestock, plants, and ecosystems, the authors wrote, though it would depend on whether that bacteria is still alive and able to reproduce when it reaches its final destination. This could be a topic for future studies.


“As there is still very little knowledge on the role of the aerobiome in the planet’s ecology, it is difficult to estimate how changes in its composition would affect environmental functioning,” the authors wrote.


“Thus, it is essential to continue the efforts to describe, record, and analyze the composition, functional profile, viability, and activity of the aerobiome.” 



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