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Appl Environ Microbiol. 2019 Oct 4. pii: AEM.01804-19. doi: 10.1128/AEM.01804-19. [Epub ahead of print]

A global comparison of the bacterial communities of bilge water, boat surfaces, and external port water.

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Department of Biological Sciences, Michigan Technological University, Houghton MI.
Department of Biological Sciences, Michigan Technological University, Houghton MI


In the past, ballast water has been a key vector in the ship-mediated dispersal of invasive species. Here we evaluate the potential for port microorganisms to enter into and colonize the hull and bilge water of ships. Due to the small size and ubiquitous nature of bacteria, they also have potential to be spread through hull fouling and bilge water discharge. The goal of this study was to identify the extent to which the boat microbial community is shaped by the microbial community in the port water where the boat spends most of its time. Here we compared the microbial community of the hull and bilge compartments of 20 boats to the port water in 20 different ports in five regions around the world. We found that there was a significant difference in microbial diversity between boat and port microbial communities. Despite these differences, we found that Cyanobacteria were present at high abundances in the bilge water of most vessels. Due to the limited light in the bilge, the presence of Cyanobacteria suggests that port microorganisms can enter into the bilge. Using source tracking software, we found that on average 40% of the bilge and 52% of the hull microbial communities were derived from water. These findings suggest that the bilge of a vessel contains a diverse microbial community that is influenced by the port microbial community and has the potential to serve as an underappreciated vector for dispersal of life.Importance Invasive species have been a world-wide problem for many years. However, the potential for microorganisms to become invasive is relatively underexplored. As the tools to study bacterial communities become more affordable, we are able to perform large-scale studies and examine bacterial communities in higher resolution than was previously practical. This study looked at the potential for bacteria to colonize both boat surfaces and bilge water. We describe the bacterial communities on boats in twenty shipping ports in five regions around the world, describing how these microorganisms were similar to microorganisms found in port water. This suggests that the water influences the bacterial community of a boat and that microorganisms living on the boat could be moved from place to place when the boat travels.


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