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Microbial stowaways: Are ships spreading disease?
Date:5/28/2008

Ships are inadvertently carrying trillions of stowaways in the water held in their ballast tanks. When the water is pumped out, invasive species could be released into new environments. Disease-causing microbes could also be released, posing a risk to public health, according to an article in the May issue of Microbiology Today.

There is no romantic adventure or skullduggery at work here, said Professor Fred Dobbs from Old Dominion University, Virginia, USA. Ships pump water in and out of ballast tanks to adjust the waterline and compensate for cargo loading, making the ship run as efficiently as possible. These tanks can hold thousands of tonnes of water. Any organisms in the water are likely to be released when it is next pumped out.

Many non-native animals and plants have been taken to new environments and become invasive, threatening the survival of local species; some fundamentally alter the ecosystem. Zebra mussels were introduced in North America and the comb jelly in the Black Sea and both have had enormous ecological and economic impacts

For more than 20 years we have known that a variety of large phytoplankton and protozoa are transported in this way, but we know very little about smaller microbes like bacteria and viruses. It is inevitable that hundreds of trillions of micro-organisms enter a single ships ballast tank during normal operations, said Professor Dobbs. The majority of these microbes are harmless, but some are a potential risk to public health.

Vibrio cholerae, which causes cholera in humans, can be carried in ballast tanks, said Professor Dobbs. There have been no known outbreaks of disease associated with ballasting activities, but the water is only sampled very rarely. Other disease-causing microbes in the tanks include Cryptosporidium parvum and Giardia duodenalis, which cause stomach upsets.

Some people say microbes are present everywhere; they may be easily dispersed because they are so s
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Contact: Lucy Goodchild
l.goodchild@sgm.ac.uk
44-118-988-1843
Society for General Microbiology
Source:Eurekalert

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