Study: ‘Microbial Hitchhikers’ Ride The Wind From Asia To Northwest

Dec 18, 2012

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. Jessica Robinson reports.

Microbiologist David J. Smith stands atop Mt. Bachelor. Not visible are several thousand species of airborne microbes that he discovered travel across the Pacific Ocean.
Credit Photo courtesy University of Washington

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.

Smith: “But nobody had thought to look for microbial hitchhikers in that same air pollution.”

David J. Smith is 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.

Smith: “What we’re starting to understand is that certain types can make it and can survive the long intercontinental journey 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.

Copyright 2012 Northwest Public Radio