, Volume 64, Issue 4, pp 973-985
Date: 04 Jul 2012

Free Tropospheric Transport of Microorganisms from Asia to North America

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Abstract

Microorganisms are abundant in the troposphere and can be transported vast distances on prevailing winds. This study measures the abundance and diversity of airborne bacteria and fungi sampled at the Mt. Bachelor Observatory (located 2.7 km above sea level in North America) where incoming free tropospheric air routinely arrives from distant sources across the Pacific Ocean, including Asia. Overall deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) concentrations for microorganisms in the free troposphere, derived from quantitative polymerase chain reaction assays, averaged 4.94 × 10−5 ng DNA m−3 for bacteria and 4.77 × 10−3 ng DNA m−3 for fungi. Aerosols occasionally corresponded with microbial abundance, most often in the springtime. Viable cells were recovered from 27.4 % of bacterial and 47.6 % of fungal samples (N = 124), with 49 different species identified by ribosomal DNA gene sequencing. The number of microbial isolates rose significantly above baseline values on 22–23 April 2011 and 13–15 May 2011. Both events were analyzed in detail, revealing distinct free tropospheric chemistries (e.g., low water vapor, high aerosols, carbon monoxide, and ozone) useful for ruling out boundary layer contamination. Kinematic back trajectory modeling suggested air from these events probably originated near China or Japan. Even after traveling for 10 days across the Pacific Ocean in the free troposphere, diverse and viable microbial populations, including presumptive plant pathogens Alternaria infectoria and Chaetomium globosum, were detected in Asian air samples. Establishing a connection between the intercontinental transport of microorganisms and specific diseases in North America will require follow-up investigations on both sides of the Pacific Ocean.