PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island — The next time you head for the restroom on your international flight, you may be doing a great service for public health.
Last month, a team of researchers at the Technical University of Denmark published a study stating that they were able to identify genes that confer antimicrobial resistance and potential pathogens from analyzing a vat of plane waste from 18 international flights.
Collected in Copenhagen, the researchers were able to simplify the samples down into a “DNA soup” that identified specific bacteria such as Salmonella enterica (which can cause diarrhea) and Clostridium difficile (which can cause an infection that results after antibiotic treatment).
While perhaps not the most pleasant method for collection of public health data, researchers suggest that this could be a novel breakthrough in preventing disease.
Where disease used to have to reach hospitals or doctors’ offices before it could be properly confirmed (leaving many cases in its wake) this may be one of the first predeterminers of an outbreak.
If a harmful bacteria exists in the fecal matter, then it is likely in the population—even if it has not caused any illness yet.
“Our study provides a first step towards a potential novel strategy for global surveillance enabling simultaneous detection of multiple human health threatening genetic elements, infectious elements and resistance genes,” wrote Danish researchers Thomas Nordahl Peterson, Simon Rasussen and Herik Hasman et all in their study.
One of the key breakthroughs attained through this research is the specificity it affords. To discover the location of origin, as well as the travel itinerary of a pathogen, one only has to take a look at the plane’s flight plan.
This allowed researchers to comb through the material they obtained from their “DNA soup” to discover regional patterns for pathogens and other microbes.
Trends included a prevalence in Salmonella from South Asia, as well as heightened level of Clostridium difficile from North America. The study was also able to identify regions that showed higher levels of genes that code for antibiotic resistance.
Flights from South Asia, in particular yielded statistically significantly higher levels of these resistance genes from other regions such as North America and North Asia.
While the results of the study are already useful tools, perhaps the greater impact on epidemiological science lies in the technology that was able to take 400 liters of human waste from an airplane storage tank, and turn it into a life-saving tool.
This is largely due to the plummeting costs of Next Generation Sequencing Technology (a catch-all term for sequencing programs like Illumina Sequencing and FastQ), which has given scientists the ability to sequence entire genomes quickly, locally, and at a cost that can range from $1,000 to $3,000.
“In recent years it has become technically and economically feasible to perform complete DNA sequencing of large samples,” wrote the Danish research team in a Nature infographic. “The method offers a way of having global surveillance of all known pathogens close to real time.”
– Emma Betuel
Sources: Nature, Mental Floss, Bite Size Bio, Wired, Nature