Air pollution is the world's largest single environmental health risk (WHO). Particulate matter such as black carbon is one of the main components of air pollution. The effects of particulate matter on human health are well established however the effects on bacteria, organisms central to ecosystems in humans and in the natural environment, are poorly understood. We report here for the first time that black carbon drastically changes the development of bacterial biofilms, key aspects of bacterial colonisation and survival. Our data show that exposure to black carbon induces structural, compositional and functional changes in the biofilms of both S. pneumoniae and S. aureus. Importantly, the tolerance of the biofilms to multiple antibiotics and proteolytic degradation is significantly affected. Additionally, our results show that black carbon impacts bacterial colonisation in vivo. In a mouse nasopharyngeal colonisation model, black carbon caused S. pneumoniae to spread from the nasopharynx to the lungs, which is essential for subsequent infection. Therefore our study highlights that air pollution has a significant effect on bacteria that has been largely overlooked. Consequently these findings have important implications concerning the impact of air pollution on human health and bacterial ecosystems worldwide.
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