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Microbes at the Edge of Space

In the mid-1800s, Irish potato farmers began to notice something unusual: soon after harvest, potatoes decayed into slimy black mush — utterly inedible masses of goo. In a country where 30% of the population depended on the potato as a primary source of nutrition, this was a problem, and “expert” panels convened, ultimately concluding that underground volcanic gases or locomotive emissions were to blame. Scientists have since revealed the culprit to be the pathogenic protist P. infestans, but the damage was already done: A million people had died, and a million more had hopped on boats off of the seemingly cursed island.

Some historians believe that P. infestans was transported through potato seed exports that ultimately reached Ireland, but is it possible that the pathogen took a more unexpected route? Could it have been swept up by the wind, lofted into the atmosphere, and moved halfway around the planet?

To Edward Wright, the atmospheric transport of epidemic-inducing pathogens like P. infestans is, if not a proven fact of historical record, at least a very real and worrying possibility. Wright is a project manager for Citizens in Space, a group devoted to the idea of science and space exploration for and by the masses. Driven in part by the epidemiological implications of airborne microbes, Citizens in Space is sponsoring the High Altitude Astrobiology Challenge, a $10,000 competition to detect organisms at the edge of space.

“Researchers have learned that the Earth’s biosphere extends to much higher altitudes than previously suspected,” says Wright, “up to 100,000 feet or more.” Indeed, thousands of microbial species have been found in the upper atmosphere, traveling up to thousands of kilometers. The best-studied “atmospheric bridge” is between North Africa and the Caribbean. Each year, up to one billion tons of dust are swept up by Sahara winds, and with a million bacteria per gram of sand, enormous quantities of biomass come along for the ride.

The upper atmosphere is not a particularly hospitable environment, and researchers have traditionally assumed that the dry, UV-zapped, nutrient-poor environment would kill off any stowaways. And although the jury is still out on whether these organisms can actively metabolize and grow in the atmosphere, they can find refuge in protective mineral grains or form spores.

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