Air Pollution + Biofilms = Disease?

From  The Atlantic on April 12th, 2017 – Air Pollution Might Make Dangerous Bacteria Harder to Kill


This article discusses a recent study that examined the effects of black carbon (a major component of air pollution) on the growth and antibiotic resistance of common opportunistic pathogens within the human microbiome –  Staphylococcus aureus  and  Streptococcus pneumoniae. The researchers found that the addition of black carbon to plated cultures of the two species changed the morphology of their respective biofilms and increased their antibiotic resistance, as well as increasing their pathogenicity when applied to the nasal mucosa of mice.


We’ve discussed how bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics in class, and while we don’t know which kinds of antibiotics were tested (other than penicillin), we can conjecture as to the mechanism through which the bacteria developed their resistance. Since I imagine black carbon is not a favored carbon source of bacteria, it may encourage the survival of bacteria with more efflux pumps, to remove the black carbon from the cells.

Critical Analysis:

It’s fascinating that research into the effects of air pollution on the microbes affecting human health was not done until so recently – especially when the effects of air pollution on  disease are  already well-documented. This article didn’t contain any factual errors (as far as I know), and was careful not to generalize the results of mouse studies to humans. The author also did a good job of defining terms that the lay reader may not be familiar with (biofilm, microbiome, etc.), and was careful to represent the results of the study accurately. Now, if only more science writing was this clear!


What mechanisms are used by bacteria to adapt to air pollution that also increase their pathogenicity?