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Wednesday, 24 April 2013 00:00

Two types of bacteria were found in a dust storm from the Sahara

The discovery, published in the magazine Environment Science and Technology, reveals the presence of Firmicutes- heat resistant- and Proto bacteria, as well as leading to future biotechnological research

Dust storms from the Sahara are meteorological phenomena capable of moving millions of tons of particulate matter thousands of kilometers, mainly in the Northern Hemisphere. Due to its proximity, Andalusia is one of the regions most affected by these occurrences, notable for offering a series of colour veils in the skies, from ivory to a pinkish or orange tone. However, apart from the aesthetic interest, one of the questions facing the academic community in the study of these storms, is if this torrent of matter will end up affecting our health by altering the quality of our air- or activities such as agriculture or fishing. Every year close to a thousand million tons of matter are calculated to be scattered around the Northern Hemisphere.

The Matalascañas Station of  Air Quality Network of the Autonomous Government of Andalusia, located in the University of Huelva campus, registered various episodes of massive Sahara dust  movement from the North of Africa between the 18th and the 20th of March 2010. Through sequencing techniques, the content of the trail of dust left by the storm on its journey though the Gulf of Cadiz was analyzed. After a year and a half, researchers from the Zaidin Experimental Post in Granada (CSIC) and the International Campus of Excellence in Agro-Food in the University of Huelva, led by Juan Luis Ramos and Ana Sánchez de la Camps respectively, determined the presence of two types of bacteria for the first time, as well as industrial matter such as titanium, vanadium and molybdenum. According to previous studies, these minerals come from industrial activity in the north of Africa, mainly phosphate and gas exploitation in North Africa. “A number of studies have identified aerosol composition from the chemical and mineralogical point of view. For example, calcite, dolomite, quartz, clay, iron oxides and calcium sulfate among others have been found. However, the microorganisms associated with these masses of air have not been analyzed in depth”, asserts Ana María Sánchez de la Campa, of the University of Huelva. The study reveals the presence of Firmicutes- a bacterial file resistant to desiccation which can survive in extreme conditions-and Proto bacteria. “Many of these transported microbes germinated under favourable conditions in spore form, and have proved to be highly resistant to ultraviolet light, atmospheric pressure and heat”, point out the researchers of the study titled    Chemical and Microbiological Characterization of Atmospheric Particulate Matter  during an Intense African Dust Event in Southern Spain, published in the magazine Environmental Science and Technology. “During the storms, the microbes are exposed in the stratosphere to ultraviolet ray activity, on account of which, we suggest that the dust could protect the cellular activity of the bacteria during its journey”, they explain.  Conclusions of the study include the fact that this tolerance to dryness and heat could be common traits necessary for facilitating transport and survival of the microbes, and that these characteristics could lead to new biotechnological activity related to industrial chemical processes.

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