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March 20, 2005

Florida Researcher Scans Sky for Bacteria-laden African Dust

Dale Griffin, a microbiologist based in Florida is using a remote-controlled model airplane to sample the skies for evidence of harmful microorganisms blown in from Africa.

Scientists say that on a typical spring or summer day in the Tampa Bay area, for instance, at least half the particles contained in the average person's breath of air originated in Africa.

The same winds that launch hurricanes westward propel dust from the Sahara and the increasingly parched Sahel to the Caribbean and southeastern United States.

"It's a small world," said Griffin, a microbiologist at the U.S. Geological Survey's Global Dust Program headquarters in St. Petersburg [Florida]. "Who would have thought...every time you inhale, half the particles are from Africa?"

Such particles have been implicated as the cause of algae blooms in Florida's coastal waters, and scientists have identified adverse effects on Atlantic coral, including a fungus deadly to sea fans.

Major Caribbean reef die-offs coincide with periods of heavy dust clouds. Kim Ritchie, manager of microbiology research at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, has found sea urchins in Panama harboring bacteria generally found only in desert soil.


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