LEICESTER, England — Air pollution affects bacterial behavior and its resistance to common antibiotic treatments, according to recent research from the University of Leicester.
An interdisciplinary study at the British school found for the first time that some bacteria that cause serious respiratory infections in humans are affected by the amount of black carbon in the air.
“Our research could initiate an entirely new understanding of how air pollution affects human health. It will lead to enhancement of research to understand how air pollution leads to severe respiratory problems and perturbs the environmental cycles essential for life,” says Dr. Julie Morrissey, the study’s lead author and an associate professor in microbial genetics, in a university release.
The team studied Staphylococcus aureus and Streptococcus pneumoniae, two bacteria species responsible for common respiratory infections in humans. They found that black carbon, a byproduct of burning fossil fuels like gasoline, increases the resistance of Staphylococcus aureus communities to antibiotic treatment as they form in the respiratory systems of human victims.
Black carbon also increases the resistance of Streptococcus pneumoniae to penicillin, which is typically the first round of defense against pneumonia.
The research team also found that black carbon causes Streptococcus pneumoniae to spread and mature from the nose to the lower respiratory tract, including the lungs, a serious step in the development of the disease in an individual.
“This work increases our understanding of how air pollution affects human health,” says Morrissey. “It shows that the bacteria which cause respiratory infections are affected by air pollution, possibly increasing the risk of infection and the effectiveness of antibiotic treatment of these illnesses.”
According to the World Health Organization, air pollution is believed to be responsible for at least 7 million deaths each year, and is viewed as the “largest single environmental health risk.”
Researchers hope the findings will help lead scientists around the world to consider new and more effective ways to control and prevent air pollution, particularly in larger, more industrialized cities.
“Urbanisation in megacities with extreme levels of air pollution are major risk factors for human health in many parts of the world. Our research seeks to lead and participate in international research consortia of biologists, chemists, clinician, social scientists and urban planners,” says Julian Ketley, a professor of bacterial genetics, and Peter Andrew, professor of microbial pathogenesis, in a joint statement from the university. “Together we will investigate how increasing urbanisation promotes infectious disease.”
The study’s findings were published earlier this year in the journal Environmental Microbiology.