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New “vertical map” of airborne microorganisms indicates how global warming will impact global ecosystems
8 February 2022

(Right to left) Team leader Prof Stephan Schuster, Research Director (Meta-'omics & Microbiomes), SCELSE, NTU; Dr Daniela Moses,
Deputy Research Director (Meta-'omics & Microbiomes); Dr Elena Gusareva, Research Fellow; and Dr Irvan Luhung, Senior Research Fellow.

 

NEWS RELEASE

Singapore, 8 Feb 2022

New “vertical map” of airborne microorganisms indicates how global warming will impact global ecosystems

In a landmark study of airborne microorganisms from ground level up to 3,500 metres, scientists from the SingaporeCentre for Environmental Life Sciences Engineering (SCELSE) at Nanyang Technological University,Singapore (NTU Singapore) have found that bacteria and fungi populate the planet’s lower atmosphere invery specific ways and if changed, may negatively impact human health and food supply.


Using a combination of a 200-metre meteorological tower and a research aircraft that circled at different heightsfrom 300 metres to 3,500 metres to gather the necessary measurements, the researchers found that temperaturewas the single most important factor influencing the composition of airborne microbial communities.


As the temperature of the air changes, the species found and the ratio of bacteria to fungi change significantly.These findings suggest that the currently observed increase in global temperature will have an impact on theatmospheric microbial ecosystem, as well as planetary terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.


The study was published today in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy ofSciences of the United States of America (PNAS) by a team of interdisciplinary scientists led by NTU ProfessorStephan Schuster, Research Director (Meta-'omics & Microbiomes) at SCELSE.


Atmospheric microorganisms, collectively known as the air microbiome, consist of bacteria and fungi, andlargely remain suspended in air once they are blown off the planet’s surface.


Only a fraction of these microorganisms find their way back down to the surface, when they are washed down by rain droplets or fall back down together with larger particles such as sand grains or dust.


“Our research generated a comprehensive ‘vertical map’ of airborne microorganisms in the planet’s atmosphere,”said Prof Schuster, the study’s corresponding author.
 

“We found that the composition of the air microbiome in our atmosphere is determined by the temperature. Asglobal air temperatures are rising due to climate change, this could lead to very significant changes in the airmicrobiome with serious consequences for people and the planet.”


“If the composition of the air microbiome changes globally, it may affect human health, exacerbating respiratorysyndromes in susceptible patients, or it could affect the yield of agricultural crops, which then threatens our foodsecurity. Natural processes that have worked for thousands of years such as carbon cycling of this planet may alsobe changed.”


“With our latest research paper, we are a step closer to showing that air has its own microbial ecosystem, muchlike those on land and in the sea. We expect that changes in the air microbiome will also have knock-on effectson terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems,” adds Prof Schuster.


The vertical map of microorganisms also provides a starting point for future ecological surveys and the necessarymeasures not only for the protection of global environments, but also for agricultural production sites, whichmay be negatively impacted by changes to the airborne microbial communities.
With the new dataset as a baseline, scientists can also model and predict the changes in the air microbiome iftemperatures were to rise by two degrees or more, said the research team.
 

Key discoveries


To measure the air microbiome high above the ground, the team used a specialised research aircraft from theTechnische Universität Braunschweig, Germany, to collect synchronised measurements of meteorologicalparameters and airborne biomass samples up to a height of 3,500 metres.


The research team on the aircraft coordinated the sampling times with a team stationed at the 200-metre-high meteorological tower at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) in Karlsruhe, Germany.


A total of 480 vertical air samples were collected from Germany, which were brought back to Singapore to beanalysed. The team was surprised to find that the composition of microorganisms above 1,000 metre was stable,independent of day or night. These air layers act as a “sink in the sky”, where bacteria accumulate in highernumbers than at the ground. The team identified over 10,000 different species of airborne microbes from thesamples taken above 1,000 metres.
 

This was very different from the air samples that were taken below 300 metres, which were shown to follow the 24-hour day and night cycle (called the diel cycle), where the air composition changes from bacteria and some fungidominating during the day, to wood-rotting fungi dominating in the night.


The discovery of the diel cycle of airborne microorganisms was first published in PNAS in 20191[1], when the sameresearch team studied the tropical air in Singapore using air samples taken at various levels of a 50-storey high-rise residential building named Pinnacle@Duxton.


In its latest study, the team also reported that atmospheric turbulence – wind and weather – is the primarydriver of microbial aerosol dynamics, which determines how microorganisms in the air are distributed.


Driven by the day/night temperature changes, air masses become layered (stratified) at night and mixed during theday, resulting in the stratification of the air microbiome across different heights of the lower part of atmosphere.


“For the first time, meteorological and biological data of the atmosphere were measured in unison, allowing us todevelop a comprehensive hypothesis about the effects of atmospheric turbulence on the dispersal ofmicroorganisms in the lower atmosphere,” said Prof Schuster.


Researchers further noticed that higher air layers contained an up-to-20-times higher concentration of radio-tolerant bacteria, which are known to withstand ionising radiation, desiccation, UV radiation, or  oxidisingagents. Of these bacteria,  one species known as Deinococcus radiodurans is known to withstand a 1,000-foldhigher radiation dose than the human body.


The team hypothesised that the ionising rays from sun and space had contributed to the development ofradioactive tolerance in these bacteria at greater height, whereas bacteria on the ground have not been exposed tosuch levels of radiation.
 

Sampling for airborne life on Mars?


Based on their experiments, the researchers comment that their air sampling technologies could in principle, beused for investigating the atmosphere of neighbouring planets, such as Mars.


1[1] “Microbial communities in the tropical air ecosystem follow a precise diel cycle”, PNAS, 29 Oct 2019.
 

By tapping on the knowledge that microorganisms will aggregate in a planet’s atmosphere, it could provide analternative to the current method of sampling, which is done by a robotic vehicle drilling and collecting soil samples.


For instance, a robot with an air sampler could collect microorganisms from the atmosphere by trapping themin an air filter, and sending the filter back to earth, in a potential future Mars sample-return mission.


The air microbiome study is one of SCLESE’s flagship research projects together with its research into terrestrialand aquatic ecosystems. The project was carried out over eight years, and has resulted in more than 40 papers,culminating with these results. The air microbiome research was supported by a Singapore Ministry of EducationTier 3 grant, SCELSE, and NTU.


Sustainability, climate change and the environment are key research pillars for NTU Singapore and are part of its Sustainability Manifesto launched last year. The University will continue fundamental and applied research todevelop sustainable solutions that can mitigate the effects of natural disasters and climate change, and to meetthe demand for food with alternative food sources.


Over the last two years during the pandemic, Prof Schuster and his team have pivoted to use their air samplingtechnology to detect and analyse the SARS-COV-2 virus from indoor air, a technique that demonstrated greatersensitivity than surface swab tests.


Moving forward, the team is planning to conduct more vertical air column studies in the tropics as well as athigher altitudes to enhance and extend their “atmospheric microbiome map”.

 

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Notes to Editor:

Research paper titled “Vertical stratification of the air microbiome in the lower troposphere”, published in PNAS, 7 Feb 2022 (Embargoed by PNAS until 4am SGT, 8 Feb 2022)
SCELSE video: "(Don't) look up - there are microbes in the sky!"
NTU Singapore’s research video: https://youtu.be/QXSgG_PjBSY
SCELSE’s microsite on the Air Microbiome research: https://airbiome.scelse.ntu.edu.sg/airbiome/index.html

 

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