Science and Technology
7:35 am
Tue December 18, 2012

Study: 'Microbial Hitchhikers' Ride The Wind From Asia To Northwest

Researchers have discovered something they didn’t expect in the air above an Oregon mountain: hundreds of tiny organisms from Asia. The study suggests the atmosphere is filled with life capable of traveling long distances.

The trans-Pacific winds are certainly capable of carrying pollution across the ocean. That’s long been known to climate scientists and air quality experts.

“But nobody had thought to look for microbial hitchhikers in that same air pollution,” says David J. Smith, a microbiologist at the University of Washington. He and other researchers used an observatory at Oregon’s Mt. Bachelor to collect samples from Asian dust plumes.

What they found surprised Smith. Scientists identified the DNA of more than 2,000 separate species of microbes. And not all of them were dead.

“What we’re starting to understand is that certain types can make it and can survive the long intercontinental journey," Smith says. "And that’s what we’re really interested in understanding is understanding is what kinds of life can survive and how.”

The study is published in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology.

Smith hopes further research will explore whether viruses or disease-causing bacteria are capable of hopping continents in the same way.

On the Web:

Study abstract: Intercontinental Dispersal of Bacteria and Archaea in Transpacific Winds (Applied and Environmental Microbiologyaem)