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Researchers document astounding number of microbial and fungal species transported with high-altitude dust plumes

Scanning electron microscopy reveals a raisin-shaped bacterial spore atop a grain of dust that journeyed from Asia high in the troposphere to the West Coast and was detected by an observatory in central Oregon.

Scanning electron microscopy reveals a raisin-shaped bacterial spore atop a grain of dust that journeyed from Asia high in the troposphere to the West Coast and was detected by an observatory in central Oregon. Image courtesy NASA.

‘Atmosphere as ecosystem’

By Summit Voice

*Adapted from a University of Washington press release.

SUMMIT COUNTY — Aerial dust plumes from near and far are known to affect the timing of snowmelt in the Colorado Rockies, and in other areas, airborne dust helps supply nutrients for marine organisms.

A new study shows that those dust plumes — traveling high in the atmosphere — are also feeding a global melting pot of microscopic life, carrying thousands of species of bacteria and fungi across vast distances.

The findings were surprising to the researchers, who said the results of the study prompted them to perhaps start thinking of the upper atmosphere as an ecosystem.

“The long-range transport and surprising level of species richness in the upper atmosphere overturns traditional paradigms in aerobiology,” says David J. Smith, who recently earned his doctorate at the University of Washington in biology and astrobiology.

In a paper published in the current issue of the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology, Smith reports that his research enabled him to gather enough biomass in the form of DNA to apply molecular methods to samples from two large dust plumes originating in Asia in the spring of 2011. The scientists detected more than 2,100 unique species compared to only 18 found in the very same plumes using traditional methods of culturing, results they published in July. Continue reading

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