Persistence of location-specific microbial signatures on boats during voyages

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Department of Biological Sciences


Objects collect microorganisms from their surroundings and develop a microbial "fingerprint" that may be useful for determining an object's past location (provenance). It may be possible to use ubiquitous microorganisms for forensics or as environmental sensors. Here, we use microbial communities in the Chesapeake Bay region to demonstrate the use of natural microorganisms as biological sensors to determine the past location of boats. The microbiomes of two boats and of the open water were sampled as these vessels traveled from the Port of Baltimore to the Port of Norfolk, and back to Baltimore. 16S rRNA sequencing was performed to identify microorganisms. Differential abundance and machine learning analyses were utilized to identify microbial signatures and predicted probabilities which were used to determine the vessel's previous location. The work presented here provides a better understanding of how microbes in aquatic systems can be leveraged as utility for object biosensors.

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Marine pollution bulletin