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Thousands Of Asian Microbial Species Cross Pacific To West Coast On Dust Plumes

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Dust-plumes power intercontinental microbial migrations

Along with pollutants from Asia, transpacific dust plumes deliver vast quantities of microbes to North America, according to a manuscript published online ahead of print in the journalApplied and Environmental Microbiology.

“We detected thousands of unique microbial species, many of which seem particularly well-suited for atmospheric transport,” says first author David J. Smith, a graduate student at the University of Washington, Seattle. “We also detected archaea, a domain of life that has never before been sampled at high altitude. We are just starting to understand the consequences of long-range microbial transport.”

“Over 70 million tons of Asian aerosols—mostly dust—reach our continent every year,” says Smith. “There could be thousands of microbes per gram of dust. Do the math. The number is staggering. Distant continents are essentially sneezing on each other.”

A surprising number of microorganisms – 99 percent more kinds than had been reported in findings published just four months ago – are leaping the biggest gap on the planet. Hitching rides in the upper troposphere, they’re making their way from Asia across the Pacific Ocean and landing in North America.

For the first time researchers have been able 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.

 
David J. Smith stands at the summit of Mount Batchelor near the snow-encrusted building housing a ski lift on the ground level and an atmospheric observatory in the upper story, complete with atmospheric instruments on the roof.

U of Washington

“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. He’s lead author of a paper in the current issue of the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology.

“It’s a small world. Global wind circulation can move Earth’s smallest types of life to just about anywhere,” Smith said.

It’s been estimated that about 7.1 million tons (64 teragrams) of aerosols – dust, pollutants and other atmospheric particles, including microorganisms – cross the Pacific each year. The aerosols are carried by wind storms into the upper reaches of the troposphere. The troposphere, the layer of air closest to earth up to about 11 miles (18 kilometers), is where almost all our weather occurs.

Co-author Daniel Jaffe, professor at UW Bothell, has previously documented especially large plumes of aerosols in the troposphere making the trans-Pacific trip in seven to 10 days. The recent findings are based on two such plumes, one in April and the other in May of 2011, detected at Mount Bachelor in the Cascade Mountains of central Oregon.

 

Plumes of dust, one in April and the other in May 2011, originated in Asia and traveled west – high in the troposphere – across the Pacific Ocean to the West coast where they were detected by an observatory in central Oregon. Scientists used models to determine the back trajectories.

U of Washington

Most of the microorganisms – about half were bacterial and the other half fungal – originated from soils and were either dead on arrival or harmless to humans. A few fungal species have been associated previously with crop wilt but scientists had no way of determining if any crops were affected during either plume event.

Most of the species in the plumes can be found in low, background levels on the West Coast. The plumes, however, brought elevated levels of such organisms leading the scientists to say that it may be useful to think about microorganisms as air pollution: microorganisms that are unnoticed in background levels might be more relevant in concentrated doses.

“I was very surprised at the concentrations. One might expect the concentrations of cells to decrease with altitude based on fallout and dilution,” Smith said. “But during these plume events, the atmosphere was pooling these cells just as it does with other kinds of air pollution.”

Interestingly, Smith says, two of the three most common families of bacteria in the plumes are known for their ability to form spores in ways that they can hibernate safely during harsh conditions, making them especially well adapted to high altitude transport.

“I think we’re getting close to calling the atmosphere an ecosystem,” Smith said. “Until recently, most people would refer to it as a conveyor belt, or a transient place where life moves through. But the discovery of so many cells potentially able to adapt to traveling long distances at high altitudes challenges the old classification.”

Cells also can interact with their high-altitude environment, for example, becoming the nucleus for rain drops and snow flakes and influencing the amount of precipitation that falls. Other scientists estimate that 30 percent of global precipitation stems from microbes.

On the other hand, scientists have yet to see evidence of metabolism or growth of microorganisms while aloft and there’s a limited amount of time that any organism might reside there.

Sampling the upper troposphere for microorganisms in the past has been a spotty effort using aircraft and balloons, Smith said

“Because it is so difficult to get samples, I argue it’s probably the last biological environment on the planet to be explored,” he said.

 
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.

NASA Kennedy Space Center

Mount Bachelor, like many other mountains in the Cascades, has a peak tall enough to pierce the upper troposphere. Unlike other mountains in the Cascades, however, the top of Mount Bachelor is a far more accessible place for an observatory because a ski area exists there. There’s power and bringing equipment and personnel to the observatory is not a major undertaking, you just take the ski lift.

Funding for the work came from the National Science Foundation, National Geographic Society, NASA’s Astrobiology Institute, the UW’s NASA Space Grant Consortium and the UW Department of Biology.

Other co-authors are Peter Ward and Hilkka Timonen with the UW and UW Bothell respectively, Dale Griffin with the U.S. Geological Survey, Michele Birmele and Michael Roberts with NASA and Kevin Perry with the University of Utah.

Although the research is basic, Smith foresees value in understanding how bacteria survive at high altitudes during intercontinental journeys. For example, identifying the mechanisms for resisting ultraviolet radiation at altitude, which likely involve protecting and repairing DNA, could prove invaluable to biotechnology and medicine, says Smith. “It is difficult to predict specific breakthroughs and applications, but studying microbes in extreme environments has had practical benefit before,” he says, mentioning discovery of a thermostable enzyme from microbes in the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park, which proved invaluable to Polymerase Chain Reaction. Additionally, developing predictive models of disease dispersal via the tradewinds “could be of tremendous value to farmers,” says Smith.

The research took place at an observatory perched on the summit of a volcano in the Pacific Northwest, says Smith. “We could process huge volumes of air, 24/7, and capture enough biomass to analyze airborne microorganisms using molecular methods.” Two major pollution events emanating from Asia during the sampling season of 2011 helped the team distinguish Asian expatriate microbes from locals, along with chemical and meteorological methods, says Smith.

The research was physically challenging. “Mt. Bachelor is a very snowy place and one of the windiest mountains in North America,” says Smith. “Some summit days were an endurance marathon. Wearing latex gloves when it’s 20 degrees below zero is not fun. But it was a worthwhile sacrifice for science, and I would happily do it again.”

Conducting the research also changed how Smith views the sky. “Now when I look at the clouds, I see microbial sanctuaries,” he says.

Contacts and sources: 

Jim Sliwa

Sandra Hines
University of Washington

Citation: A PDF of the manuscript can be found online at http://bit.ly/asmtip1212a. Formal publication is scheduled for the February 2013 issue of Applied and Environmental Microbiology.

(D.J. Smith, H.J. Timonen, D.A. Jaffe, D.W. Griffin, M.N. Birmele, K.D. Perry, P.D. Ward, M.S. Robert, 2012. Intercontinental dispersal of bacteria and archaea in transpacific winds. Appl. Environ. Microbiol. (E-pub ahead of print 7 Dec. 2012).

Applied and Environmental Microbiology is a publication of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM). The ASM is the largest single life science society, composed of over 39,000 scientists and health professionals. Its mission is to advance the microbiological sciences as a vehicle for understanding life processes and to apply and communicate this knowledge for the improvement of health and environmental and economic well-being worldwide.

 
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