Microbiol Spectr. 2022 Nov 21:e0342122. doi: 10.1128/spectrum.03421-22. Online ahead of print.
The growth and activity of bacteria have been extensively studied in nearly every environment on Earth, but there have been limited studies focusing on the air. Suspended bacteria (outside of water droplets) may stay in the atmosphere for time frames that could allow for growth on volatile compounds, including the potent greenhouse gas methane. We investigated the ability of aerosolized methanotrophic bacteria to grow on methane in the airborne state in rotating gas-phase bioreactors. The physical half-life of the aerial bacterium-sized particles was 3 days. To assess the potential for airborne growth, gas-phase bioreactors containing the aerosolized cultures were amended with 1,500 ppmv 13CH4 or 12CH4. Three of seven experiments demonstrated 13C incorporation into DNA, indicating growth in air. Bacteria associated with the genera Methylocystis and Methylocaldum were detected in 13C-DNA fractions, thus indicating that they were synthesizing new DNA, suggesting growth in air. We conclude that methanotrophs outside of water droplets in the air can potentially grow under certain conditions. Based on our data, humidity seems to be a major limitation to bacterial growth in air. Furthermore, low biomass levels can pose problems for detecting 13C-DNA synthesis in our experimental system. IMPORTANCE Currently, the cellular activities of bacteria in the airborne state outside of water droplets have not been heavily studied. Evidence suggests that these airborne bacteria produce ribosomes and metabolize gaseous compounds. Despite having a potentially important impact on atmospheric chemistry, the ability of bacteria in the air to metabolize substrates such as methane is not well understood. Demonstrating that bacteria in the air can metabolize and grow on substrates will expand knowledge about the potential activities and functions of the atmospheric microbiome. This study provides evidence for DNA synthesis and, ultimately, growth of airborne methanotrophs.