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article imageDarwin's Dust Samples Analysed; Air Traveling Bacteria Still Alive 200 Years Later

By Angelique van Engelen     Dec 5, 2007 in Science
At the beginning of the 19th Century, Charles Darwin collected samples of aerial dust in the suspicion that this stuff enables bacteria to travel across continents. Now, some two hundred year later, scientists who studied the samples, say he was right.
Not only do bacteria travel freely, they survive the ages, so it appears. European scientists who analysed Darwin’s aerial dust samples recently confirmed that microbes can travel across continents without the need for planes or trains; They say that bacteria and fungi ‘hitchhike’ with dust particles.
In a paper published in Environmental Microbiology, scientists from Germany and Switzerland say that their analysis showed that the particles contained wind-fractionated dust from West Africa. Some travelled as far as the Caribbean. They found diverse microbes, including ascomycetes and eubacteria. This proves that these microbes can live for centuries and travel wide distances.
“These findings push forward our understanding of planetary microbial ecology.” said professor William Broughton from the University of Geneva, Switzerland. "Desert storms stir up and deposit 50 million tonnes of dust particles from the Sahara to the Amazon every year. The largest, single source of dust on the planet is the Bodélé Depression in Northern Chad. As surface sand is whipped up into the air, larger particles are continually lost, and only the finest (< 10microns) reach the troposphere where they are blown on Trade Winds across the Atlantic", the scientists say. The add that similar fractionation of microbes also occurs, and only some survive travel across oceans.
But could inter-continental spread of microbial hitchhikers lead to the spread of contaminants or disease? “Obviously, intercontinental spread of micro-organisms has been with us for a very long time, so unless land-use patterns in the Western Sahara have changed recently, disasters like the demise of coral in the Caribbean, cannot be ascribed to the intercontinental travel of desert bugs” said Professor Broughton.
Broughton and his team collaborated with researchers from the Carl-von-Ossietzky University in Oldenburg, Germany headed up by dr. Anna Gorbushina.
More about Darwin, Aerial dust, Evolution
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