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Funded Research

A Transoceanic Aerobiology Biodiversity Study (TABS) to Characterize Microorganisms in Asian and African Dust Plumes Reaching North America

Schuerger, Andrew: University of Florida (Project Lead)

Project Funding: 2016 - 2019

NRA: 2015 NASA: Biodiversity   

Funded by NASA

Large deserts like the Sahara in North Africa and the Gobi and Takla Makan deserts in Asia are the primary sources of mobilized dust into the atmosphere each year. The current estimate for the quantity of airborne aerosols from deserts that make regional or global airborne migrations is 2 to5 billion metric tons per year. Annual Asian dust plumes reach the northwest USA from late February to May, and take 7 to 10 days to cross the Pacific Ocean. In contrast, the peak season for the movement of African dust storms to the southeastern USA is July to September, and plumes generally take 5 to 7 days to reach Florida. Although several studies have documented that a wide range of bacteria and fungi in African and Asian dust plumes reach the USA each year, little is known about the temporal and spatial changes in microbial biodiversity in the transatlantic and transpacific dust storms. We propose a 12 month scoping study to develop a coordinated and multidisciplinary field campaign that would characterize the biodiversity in Asian and African dust plumes reaching the continental USA, and to develop a dust/microbial transport model using NASA aircraft and satellite remote sensing platforms. The research team is composed of research scientists from diverse fields of aerobiology, astrobiology, molecular microbiology, plant pathology, virology, remote sensing, and aerospace engineering. The objectives of the proposed Transoceanic Aerobiology Biodiversity Study (TABS) are the following: (1) Identify technologies for land-, water-, and air-based measurements of microbial communities in Asian and African dust plumes. (2) Explore methods to differentiate between baseline airborne biodiversity (i.e., non-dusty days) from the biodiversity unique to arriving dust plumes. (3) Study metagenomic protocols to optimize the recovery and identification of the widest possible range of viable airborne microbial species recovered from the hardware identified in #1 above. (4) Evaluate molecular microbiology approaches and hypobaric chamber experimental protocols to scope out how to simulate tropospheric and stratospheric environments in order to study the survival, metabolism, growth, and possible adaptation of microorganisms under atmospheric conditions present during transport. (5) Develop a remote sensing modeling approach to correlate microbial biodiversity to ground, airborne, and satellite measurements of atmospheric aerosols (e.g., ground LIDAR, satellites like MODIS, CALIOP, CATS), in which the aerosols are used as proxies for tracking transoceanic movement of airborne microorganisms. (6) Predict possible microbial and aerosol interactions among atmosphere-, ocean-, and land-based ecosystems. And (7), identify the technologies, logistics, resources, timelines, and budgets required to develop a 5-year field campaign that characterizes the biodiversity of Asian and African transoceanic dust plumes, and models their global transport. Results will inform our understanding of the endemic microbial biodiversity over the continental USA, characterize the influx of transoceanic microbial communities in Asian and African dust storms, and develop models for using aircraft and satellite remote sensing and ground-based LIDAR systems to track and predict the movement of microbial communities in atmospheric aerosol corridors. The integrated focus of the biodiversity research will result in a deeper understanding of the atmospheric transport of microorganisms via dust plumes across terrestrial, freshwater, and marine ecosystems. Results will help determine if the bulk atmosphere in general, and the Asian and African dust plumes in particular, are active functioning microbial ecosystems.