Can ocean bubbles help spread diseases?

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Bryn Saunders

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Start Year

2017 (Cohort 4)

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PhD Project
PhD Title

Can ocean bubbles help spread diseases?

Research Theme

Environmental Pollution

Primary Supervisor
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Secondary Supervisor
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Storms at sea are frequent, and so breaking waves and bubbles are a common feature of the ocean surface. As the bubbles move through the water column, they collect organic matter and particles on their surface, and this coating is ejected into the air as tiny aerosol particles when the bubbles burst.

It is known that viruses and bacteria can be carried upwards by this mechanism, and that infectious material could travel this way, potentially transporting a local disease to distant areas of the ocean. However, the details and the importance of this mechanism are not understood.

The aim of this project is to combine bubble bursting experiments with next-generation DNA sequencing to understand which pathogens are carried and why. The project student will use genetic techniques to compare the pathogens associated with bursting bubbles in different conditions, quantifying the effectiveness of this transport mechanism for the first time.

Policy Impact

This project is unusual in combining experiments simulating a small-scale physical phenomenon with the latest molecular genetic techniques. The study will quantify the capacity of bubbles to spread pathogens through the lower atmosphere for the first time. This is significant for fisheries, generally.

Background Reading
  • Aller JY, Kuznetsova MR, Jahns CJ, Kemp PF (2005) The sea surface microlayer as a source of viral and bacterial enrichment in marine aerosols. J Aerosol Sci 36:801–812.
  • Modini RL, Russell LM, Deane GB, Stokes MD (2013) Effect of soluble surfactant on bubble persistence and bubble-produced aerosol particles. J Geophys Res Atmosph: 118: 1388-1400.
  • Sharoni S et al. (2015) Infection of phytoplankton by aerosolized marine viruses. Proc Natl Acad Sci 112: 6643–6647.
  • Publications


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