Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology

, Volume 102, Issue 7, pp 3327–3336 | Cite as

Influence of membrane fatty acid composition and fluidity on airborne survival of Escherichia coli

Applied microbial and cell physiology


Finding ways to predict and control the survival of bacterial aerosols can contribute to the development of ways to alleviate a number of crucial microbiological problems. Significant damage in the membrane integrity of Escherichia coli during aerosolization and airborne suspension has been revealed which has prompted the question of how the membrane fatty acid composition and fluidity influence the survival of airborne bacteria. Two approaches of using isogenic mutants and different growth temperatures were selected to manipulate the membrane fatty acid composition of E. coli before challenging the bacteria with different relative humidity (RH) levels in an aerosol chamber. Among the mutants (fabR , cfa. fadA ), fabR had the lowest membrane fluidity index (FI) and generally showed a higher survival than the parental strain. Surprisingly, its resistance to airborne stress was so strong that its viability was fully maintained even after airborne suspension at 40% RH, a harsh RH level to bacterial survival. Moreover, E. coli cultured at 20 °C with a higher FI than that at 30 and 37 °C generally had a lower survival after aerosolization and airborne suspension. Unlike FI, individual fatty acid and cyclopropane fatty acid composition did not relate to the bacterial survival. Lipid peroxidation of the membrane was undetected in all the bacteria. Membrane fluidity plays a stronger role in determining the bacteria survival during airborne suspension than during aerosolization. Certain relationships between FI and bacteria survival were identified, which could help predict the transmission of bacteria under different conditions.


Airborne bacteria Fatty acids Membrane fluidity E. coli 



This study was funded by the Hong Kong University Grant Council (Ref: GRF 12218416).

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

All authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

This article does not contain any studies with human participants or animals performed by any of the authors.

Supplementary material

253_2018_8826_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (141 kb)
ESM 1 (PDF 141 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of BiologyHong Kong Baptist UniversityKowloon TongHong Kong

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