The Infected Air (NSFH [Not Safe For Hypochondriacs])

By Carl Zimmer | October 1, 2012 1:59 pm

As I was putting together a talk today about our microbial world, I just came across this interesting paper in the August issue of The Journal of Virology.

A team of Korean scientists set up some traps to catch viruses and bacteria floating in the air. They set up their traps in Seoul, in an industrial complex in western Korea, and in a forest. Based on their collection, they came up with the following estimates…

**In each cubic meter of air, there are between 1.6 million and 40 million viruses.

**In each cubic meter of air, there are between 860,000 and 11 million bacteria.

Given that we breathe roughly .01 cubic meters of air each minute, a simple calculation based on these results suggests we breathe in a few hundred thousand viruses every minute.

Half of the viruses the scientists trapped didn’t match any known virus species. But most belong to groups that infect plants or mammals.

A note to hypochondriacs: holding your breath may keep viruses from coming into your body, but as a lifestyle choice, it has some drawbacks.


CATEGORIZED UNDER: A Planet of Viruses

Comment on this article

Trackback URL | RSS Feed for This Entry

Comments (11)

  1. Don’t know what it is I’ve got but I’m not feeling good.
    Hopefully not Triple E or West Nile (knock on wood).
    Feels as if a nasty cold made love to stomach flu
    Once they got together all their little symptoms grew.

  2. Brian

    Finding microbial genetic material in the air does not equal finding microbes in the air. I work on aerosol sampling of influenza virus. It is very difficult to collect viable virus from the air. A look through the literature shows most viral sampling can find genome copies of flu at similar levels to what the Korean group found in laboratory settings, but can’t get any of it to grow. Sampling methods are mostly to blame because obviously some of the virus in the air is viable (or else we would have no flu). However, most of what is in the air is not infectious.

  3. Regie

    @ Brain – Aerosol sampling of influenza? Bio warfare?

  4. tj

    Was wondering up to what height these viruses / bacteria are present. And if it is possible for them to be in outer space.

  5. p-dawg

    Holding your “breathe”? Wow.

    [CZ: Fixed.]

  6. Hippo

    I have been telling people for years, if you want to live forever you are going to have to stop breathing, nobody ever listens but breathing leads to a whole cascade of effects that cause aging and eventually death.

  7. Between average intake and illegal germs, it’s all a crapshoot.

  8. Kofu

    The abstract says that most of the sampled viruses infect fungi that infect plants.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


See More

Collapse bottom bar