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Bacterial communities in commercial aircraft high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters assessed by PhyloChip analysis


G. M. Hwang
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The MITRE Corporation
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Abstract  Air travel can rapidly transport infectious diseases globally. To facilitate the design of biosensors for infectious organisms in commercial aircraft, we characterized bacterial diversity in aircraft air. Samples from 61 aircraft high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters were analyzed with a custom microarray of 16S rRNA gene sequences (PhyloChip), representing bacterial lineages. A total of 606 subfamilies from 41 phyla were detected. The most abundant bacterial subfamilies included bacteria associated with humans, especially skin, gastrointestinal and respiratory tracts, and with water and soil habitats. Operational taxonomic units that contain important human pathogens as well as their close, more benign relatives were detected. When compared to 43 samples of urban outdoor air, aircraft samples differed in composition, with higher relative abundance of Firmicutes and Gammaproteobacteria lineages in aircraft samples, and higher relative abundance of Actinobacteria and Betaproteobacteria lineages in outdoor air samples. In addition, aircraft and outdoor air samples differed in the incidence of taxa containing human pathogens. Overall, these results demonstrate that HEPA filter samples can be used to deeply characterize bacterial diversity in aircraft air and suggest that the presence of close relatives of certain pathogens must be taken into account in probe design for aircraft biosensors.

Practical Implications

A biosensor that could be deployed in commercial aircraft would be required to function at an extremely low false alarm rate, making an understanding of microbial background important. This study reveals a diverse bacterial background present on aircraft, including bacteria closely related to pathogens of public health concern. Furthermore, this aircraft background is different from outdoor air, suggesting different probes may be needed to detect airborne contaminants to achieve minimal false alarm rates. This study also indicates that aircraft HEPA filters could be used with other molecular techniques to further characterize background bacteria and in investigations in the wake of a disease outbreak.