Research

Viruses are Circulating in Earth's Atmosphere - and Falling from It

Viruses are Circulating in Earth's Atmosphere - and Falling from It

"Every day, more than 800 million viruses are deposited per square meter above the planetary boundary layer - that's 25 viruses for each person in Canada", study co-author Curtis Suttle, a virologist and professor with the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries at the University of British Columbia, said in a statement.

Researchers probed the atmosphere from sites in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the south of Spain.

Viruses and bacteria fall back to Earth via dust storms and precipitation, like Saharan dust intrusions from North Africa and rains from the Atlantic. But observations have shown nearly genetically identical viruses (or bacteria) in very distant and disparate environments, puzzling scientists. To do that, researchers looked at a boundary layer in the atmosphere - the free troposphere, which lies below the stratosphere but is still high enough to be beyond the reach of weather systems. They gathered samples from this location that is nearly the planetary boundary layer in the atmosphere that is above the weather systems but below the stratosphere.

"Roughly 20 years ago, we began finding genetically similar viruses occurring in very different environments around the globe", Suttle explained in a university news release.

The scientists say that at this height, in the troposphere, they can be carried thousands of kilometres before being dumped back down on the Earth's surface. At that altitude, particles are subject to long-range transport unlike particles lower in the atmosphere.

A previous study indicates that migration of bacteria is a natural phenomenon due to atmospheric events and ocean currents.

Suttle and his team found that viruses and bacteria are often swept up into the atmosphere by attaching themselves to particles in soil dust and sea spray.

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Airborne microbes scattered swirling in the sky return to the Earth's surface through rain. "The viruses and the bacteria would be able to be carried presumably even farther". "However, the rain was less efficient removing viruses from the atmosphere", says study author Isabel Reche, a microbial ecologist from the University of Granada. And of course we know viruses can be airborne - that is one of their major transmission methods.

In fact, viruses are the most abundant microbes on the planet, the study authors reported.

The paper, titled "Deposition rates of viruses and bacteria above the atmospheric boundary layer", appeared online January 29 in the International Society for Microbial Ecology Journal.

However, this raining down of viruses and bacteria phenomenon is not related to the widespread flu epidemic across the United States.

Some viruses, such as influenza and Ebola, do sicken people, but manyinfectonly bacteria.

Viruses also aren't just pathogens.


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