Bacteria may travel thousands of miles across the globe via an invisible ‘air bridge,’ researchers discover

  • Bacteria thought to be transported via animals may actually travel through air
  • Researchers say bacteria found in hot springs around the world are identical
  • The study rules out transfer via birds or humans by studying super-heated water 
  • The study may help understand the spread of harmful antibiotic resistant germs 

Assumptions about the migration of bacteria, traditionally thought to happen via human and animal carriers, may be incomplete, according the new research.

A new study has found that microbes can also travel thousands of miles through the air.

The scientists’ hypothesis, referred to as the ‘air bridge,’ is based on the fact that DNA sequences found in bacteria of disparate hot springs across the world turned out to be identical.

Researchers ruled out the spread of bacteria via birds by studying microbes in super-heated water across the world.

Researchers ruled out the spread of bacteria via birds by studying microbes in super-heated water across the world.

‘Our research suggests that there must be a planet-wide mechanism that ensures the exchange of bacteria between faraway places,’ said senior author Konstantin Severinov, a principal investigator at the Waksman Institute of Microbiology. 

The researchers studied a type of bio-signature known as bacterial ‘memory’ that shows how bacteria interacts with viruses.

According to the scientists, ‘memories’ are passed down from bacteria infected by a virus through regions of bacterial DNA called CRISPR Arrays. 

By studying the order of the ‘memories,’ researchers can track exactly how bacteria interacts with nearby viruses, giving it a type of recognizable signature. 

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While researchers expected the geographically disparate bacteria studied in the test to contain vastly different memories, what they found instead was that many shared the same history.

Birds and other animals were ruled out of the equation due to the fact that the bacteria studied come only from extremely hot water. 

‘Because the bacteria we study live in very hot water—about 160 degrees Fahrenheit—in remote places, it is not feasible to imagine that animals, birds or humans transport them,’ Severinov said in a statement. 

‘They must be transported by air and this movement must be very extensive so bacteria in isolated places share common characteristics.’ 

By studying the 'memory' of bacteria, researchers are able to determine a type of bio-signature.

By studying the ‘memory’ of bacteria, researchers are able to determine a type of bio-signature.

Samples were collected from bacteria found in gravel at Mount Vesuvius; hot springs on Mount Etna in Italy; hot springs in the El Tatio region in northern Chile and southern Chile’s Termas del Flaco region; and hot springs in the Uzon caldera in Kamchatka, Russia. 

According to the scientists, the findings of the research may change the way we understand how diseases and bacteria are spread, affecting important epidemiological studies like those relating to antibiotic resistant bacteria.

Authors of the study are also calling for additional resources to test the air bridge theory by sampling bacteria in different parts of the atmosphere using drones or research balloons. 

WHAT IS ANTIBIOTIC RESISTANCE?

Antibiotics have been doled out unnecessarily by GPs and hospital staff for decades, fueling once harmless bacteria to become superbugs.

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The World Health Organization has previously warned if nothing is done the world was headed for a ‘post-antibiotic’ era.

It claimed common infections, such as chlamydia, will become killers without immediate answers to the growing crisis.

Bacteria can become drug resistant when people take incorrect doses of antibiotics, or they are given out unnecessarily.

Chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies claimed in 2016 that the threat of antibiotic resistance is as severe as terrorism.

Figures estimate that superbugs will kill ten million people each year by 2050, with patients succumbing to once harmless bugs.

Around 700,000 people already die yearly due to drug-resistant infections including tuberculosis (TB), HIV and malaria across the world.

Concerns have repeatedly been raised that medicine will be taken back to the ‘dark ages’ if antibiotics are rendered ineffective in the coming years.

In addition to existing drugs becoming less effective, there have only been one or two new antibiotics developed in the last 30 years.

In September, the World Health Organisation warned antibiotics are ‘running out’ as a report found a ‘serious lack’ of new drugs in the development pipeline.

Without antibiotics, caesarean sections, cancer treatments and hip replacements would also become incredibly ‘risky’, it was said at the time.



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