The Microbiome of Size-Fractionated Airborne Particles from the Sahara Region

Environ Sci Technol. 2021 Feb 2;55(3):1487-1496. doi: 10.1021/acs.est.0c06332. Epub 2021 Jan 21.


Diverse airborne microbes affect human health and biodiversity, and the Sahara region of West Africa is a globally important source region for atmospheric dust. We collected size-fractionated (>10, 10-2.5, 2.5-1.0, 1.0-0.5, and <0.5 μm) atmospheric particles in Mali, West Africa and conducted the first cultivation-independent study of airborne microbes in this region using 16S rRNA gene sequencing. Abundant and diverse microbes were detected in all particle size fractions at levels higher than those previously hypothesized for desert regions. Average daily abundance was 1.94 × 105 16S rRNA copies/m3. Daily patterns in abundance for particles <0.5 μm differed significantly from other size fractions likely because they form mainly in the atmosphere and have limited surface resuspension. Particles >10 μm contained the greatest fraction of daily abundance (51-62%) and had significantly greater diversity than smaller particles. Greater bacterial abundance of particles >2.5 μm that are bigger than the average bacterium suggests that most airborne bacteria are present as aggregates or attached to particles rather than as free-floating cells. Particles >10 μm have very short atmospheric lifetimes and thus tend to have more localized origins. We confirmed the presence of several potential pathogens using polymerase chain reaction that are candidates for viability and strain testing in future studies. These species were detected on all particle sizes tested, including particles <2.5 μm that are expected to undergo long-range transport. Overall, our results suggest that the composition and sources of airborne microbes can be better discriminated by collecting size-fractionated samples.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Africa, Northern
  • Air Microbiology
  • Dust* / analysis
  • Humans
  • Mali
  • Microbiota*
  • Particle Size
  • RNA, Ribosomal, 16S / genetics


  • Dust
  • RNA, Ribosomal, 16S