Deposition rates of viruses and bacteria above the atmospheric boundary layer

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Aerosolization of soil-dust and organic aggregates in sea spray facilitates the long-range transport of bacteria, and likely viruses across the free atmosphere. Although long-distance transport occurs, there are many uncertainties associated with their deposition rates. Here, we demonstrate that even in pristine environments, above the atmospheric boundary layer, the downward flux of viruses ranged from 0.26 × 109 to >7 × 109 m−2 per day. These deposition rates were 9–461 times greater than the rates for bacteria, which ranged from 0.3 × 107 to >8 × 107 m−2 per day. The highest relative deposition rates for viruses were associated with atmospheric transport from marine rather than terrestrial sources. Deposition rates of bacteria were significantly higher during rain events and Saharan dust intrusions, whereas, rainfall did not significantly influence virus deposition. Virus deposition rates were positively correlated with organic aerosols <0.7 μm, whereas, bacteria were primarily associated with organic aerosols >0.7 μm, implying that viruses could have longer residence times in the atmosphere and, consequently, will be dispersed further. These results provide an explanation for enigmatic observations that viruses with very high genetic identity can be found in very distant and different environments.

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We thank J. López-Ramos and R. McGrath for assistance with sample collection, preparation, and analyses. Funding was provided by Fundación BBVA (ECOSENSOR, grant number BIOCON04/009), Junta de Andalucía (AEROGLOBAL, grant number P06-RNM-01503), and Ministerio de Medio Ambiente (MICROBIOGEOGRAPHY, grant number 080/2007) and grants from the Tula Foundation, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the Canadian Foundation for Innovation. We thank NOAA Air Resources Laboratory (ARL) for the provision of the HYSPLIT transport and dispersion model and NASA for the access to MERRA-2 model. We also thank two anonymous reviewers whose comments improved this article.

Author information


  1. Departamento de Ecología and Instituto del Agua, Facultad de Ciencias, Universidad de Granada, 18071, Granada, Spain

    • Isabel Reche
    •  & Gaetano D’Orta
  2. Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering, San Diego State University, San Diego, CA, 92182, USA

    • Natalie Mladenov
  3. Departments of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences, Microbiology and Immunology, Botany, and Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, V6T 1Z4, Canada

    • Danielle M. Winget
    •  & Curtis A. Suttle


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Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Isabel Reche or Curtis A. Suttle.

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