Microbes in the atmosphere and the role of the oceans in their movement have been largely overlooked by researchers. Now, an international team shows that the oceans contribute to a large fraction of the microbes found in the global atmosphere.
Understanding the oceans’ role as a source and sink for airborne microbes can provide insight into the maintenance of microbial diversity and how human, animal and plant pathogens spread over oceans and between landmasses. The team, which included researchers from KAUST as well as several Spanish and French organizations, expected that they would find many more microbes over land than over water. What they didn't know was how many microbes actually exist in the atmosphere over the oceans.
More than 100 air samples were collected from tropical and subtropical regions over the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans during an eight-month marine research expedition—the Malaspina 2010 Circumnavigation Expedition—that began in December 2010.
“We found that the atmosphere is a vector for the long-range transport—typically 4,000Km—of airborne microbes, including bacteria and fungi among others, says Carlos Duarte of KAUST’s Red Sea Research Center, who led the study. “Even in the open ocean, more than half of the microbial load in the atmosphere is derived from land.” Atmospheric transport may be important in redistributing pathogens across the globe, he adds.
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