Background: The emergence and spread of antibiotic resistance has become a global health threat; it is often linked with the overuse of antibiotics in industrial-scale animal operations. Excreted antibiotics can be transported into the environment in several ways, including runoff, and the application of manure.

The story: Researchers from Texas Tech have recently released results of a study documenting the airborne transmission of antibiotic resistant material from an open-air farm setting (in this case, feedlots).

The researchers collected air samples upwind and downwind from 10 Texas feedlots. The found greater amounts of bacteria, antibiotics and DNA sequences responsible for antibiotic resistance downwind of the feedlots.

Dr. Greg Mayer, an associate professor of molecular toxicology, told Feedstuffs why the research study may have significant implications:

“I think implications for the spread of some feedlot-derived, antibiotic-resistant bacteria into urban areas is paramount to the research,” Mayer said. “Now, we haven’t yet taken samples from an urban area to determine whether bacteria from that particulate matter originated from feedlots or whether it still has antibiotic resistant bacteria on it. However, this study is proof of the principle that antibiotic-resistant bacteria could plausibly travel through the air.”

The team could not assess if the materials collected in the course of the study were a threat to human health, but their research could help explain a previously uncharacterized pathway by which antibiotic-resistant bacteria could travel long distances (think wind, dust and the region’s epic dust storms).

The study is called “Antibiotics, Bacteria, and Antibiotic Resistance Genes: Aerial Transport from Cattle Feed Yards via Particulate Matter.” It’s peer-reviewed, and is available in the National Institutes of Environmental Science’s journal, Environmental Health Perspectives.