Pooping on that 12 hour flight may be a public health service. Researchers from the Technical University of Denmark are siphoning off the sludge from international airline flights and using it to study the spread of infectious diseases and antimicrobial resistance.
In a study in Scientific Reports, they break down their analysis of 18 different airplanes that arrived in Copenhagen from nine different cities around the world, looking for the presence of things like Salmonella and Clostridium difficile.
The team found that Salmonella was more prevalent in poop arriving from Southeast Asia, while the sludge from planes arriving from North America was more likely to contain C. difficile (a bacteria that causes a nasty drug-resistant infection). Planes arriving from Asia had higher rates of DNA from drug-resistant bacteria strains overall.
The study indicates that planes could be a prime place for analysis on global health trends, including tracking the spread of infectious diseases—before an epidemic makes its way into doctors' reports and onto the radars of governmental disease control organizations. However, analyzing bacterial DNA for the presence of disease can be tricky: Scientists recently revised a widely reported study that mentioned the potential presence of bubonic plague bacterial DNA on the New York City subway, clarifying that the genetic evidence of the bubonic plague on the subway doesn’t necessarily correspond to organisms that would get people sick. But researchers might be able to learn from sudden upticks in different genetic material in plane waste. So the next time you are locked in a cramped airplane bathroom during turbulence, think of the public service you’re doo-doing.