Study Finds That Clouds Can Harbor And Help The Spread Of Drug-Resistant Bacteria! What About Airborne Viruses?
: A groundbreaking study by Canadian and French researchers unravels a dark, new reality that could alter our perception of the simple, benign act of looking up at the sky. The ominous clouds floating serenely in the heavens are now suspect carriers of drug-resistant bacteria, capable of traversing vast distances.
Scientists from Laval University in Quebec City and Clermont Auvergne University in central France embarked on an exhaustive exploration to unearth antibiotic-resistant genes (ARGs) in bacteria residing in cloud samples. Their research spanned from September 2019 to October 2021 and was conducted at an atmospheric research station situated at an altitude of 1,465 meters (4,806 feet) above sea level atop the Puy de Dome summit, a dormant volcano in central France.
Analyzing the misty specimens collected, the researchers discovered that the samples teemed with a startling 330 to over 30,000 bacteria per milliliter of cloud water, averaging around 8,000 bacteria per milliliter. A deeper probe into the bacterial genetic code revealed the presence of 29 subtypes of antibiotic-resistant genes or ARGs, highlighting the diversity of these resistant strains, and their ability to withstand the harsh atmospheric conditions.
This study is also the first to demonstrate that ARGs can be found in cloud water at concentrations comparable to other natural environments. This is alarming as it suggests that the atmosphere could act as a channel for these genes to travel far and wide. The researchers found that the type and quantity of ARGs detected in the clouds varied depending on the geographical origins of the air masses, indicating that different areas may contribute differently to the spread of antibiotic resistance.
Drug resistance in bacteria is a natural but troublesome phenomenon. Bacteria exposed to antibiotics over generations evolve, developing immunity and presenting an escalating global health crisis. The unfettered use of antibiotics in healthcare and agriculture has accelerated this evolution, making certain bacterial infections increasingly difficult, and in some instances, impossible to treat.
The study, however, does not draw definitive conclusions on the potential health impacts of the atmospheric spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. It estimates that only 5 percent to 50 percent of these airborne organisms might be alive and potentially active. Lead author Florent Rossi, while acknowledging the discovery, sought to allay fears stating, "The atmosphere is very stressful for bacteria, and most of those we found were environmental bacteria," which pose a lesser threat to humans.
However, the presence of ARGs in the clouds could have other potential impacts. For example, if these ARGs fall back to Earth with rainwater, they could contaminate the environment and potentially transfer their resistance genes to other bacteria. This could lead to an increase in the number of Drug-Resistant Bacteria
in the environment, further exacerbating the global problem of antibiotic resistance.
The team's research marks the first identification of microbial antibiotic-resistant genes (ARGs) in clouds at concentrations akin to other natural environments. Their findings point to a variety of ARGs reaching
cloud altitude, primarily within the free troposphere, where they are efficiently transported. The concentrations of these ARGs differ depending on the sources and geographical origin of the air masses.
Interestingly, the researchers also found that the ARGs detected in the cloud samples demonstrated clear distinctions depending on the air masses' origin. Specifically, quinolone resistance genes were prevalent in clouds formed over marine areas, while a higher contribution of sulfonamide, tetracycline, glycopeptide, β-lactamase, and macrolide resistance genes were found in clouds influenced by continental surfaces.
The atmospheric ARGs' spread could also provide bacteria with a selective advantage in such a stressful environment, promoting their maintenance in the environment. This reinforces the capacity of bacterial ARGs to spread by atmospheric transport.
This atmospheric spread of ARGs is alarming, considering that antibiotic resistance is among the top ten threats to human societies. In 2019, over 4.95 million deaths were associated with antimicrobial resistance, with around 1.27 million directly attributed to drug-resistant bacterial infections. If left unchecked, by 2050, this could surge to up to 10 million deaths per year, eclipsing all other causes and potentially burdening the global economy with over 100 trillion USD in costs.
The study also brings into focus the potential role that human activities, particularly the extensive use of antibiotics in agriculture and healthcare, may play in the spread of drug-resistant bacteria
The study also opens to other queries such as whether or not certain airborne viruses that withstand extreme environmental stress are also able to be spread by clouds over vast areas. There have already been speculations that even some of the current SARS-CoV-2 sub-lineages that have evolved to have conformational and folding changes to withstand extreme temperatures and humidity issues could also be spread by winds and now even by clouds. More detailed research is warranted on this.
Overall, this study offers a new perspective on the global problem of antibiotic resistance. It shows that our actions can have far-reaching effects, even impacting the very clouds above us. While the findings are concerning, they also provide valuable insights that could help guide efforts to tackle antibiotic resistance, one of the most pressing public health issues of our time.
The study findings were published in the peer reviewed journal: Science of The Total Environment.
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