Smoke May Be Home To Helpful And Harmful Microbes, Research Finds

Nov 26, 2018

You know the old saying, where there’s smoke, there’s fire? Scientists at University of Idaho found where there’s smoke, there are microbes.

Tiny bacteria or fungi get sucked up from the soil or burning plant life and are cast through the air inside the smoke plume.

U of I Professor Leda Kobziar led the research team. She says it’s not clear if these microbes can survive long trips in smoke, but, “Research that has addresed long distance transport of fungi and bacteria – and even viruses – through dust clouds has shown that they can survive across continent transport.”

Smoke is not the most hospitable environment for a living thing. It has to deal with extreme heat, no water and even low to no oxygen. But Kobziar says these are tough microbes.

"A lot of these organisms have evolved to be able to withstand all sorts of extreme conditions."

If bacteria and fungi can survive a long-distance road trip in the smoke column, she says forest managers may want to think twice about burning diseased trees.

Burning wood infected with common tree diseases, like pine blister rust or Sudden Oak Death, could spread it to healthier parts of the forest. Viruses may also survive in smoke and could be harmful to humans on top of the fine particles that get breathed in.

But, smoke could also help scatter good bacteria that drops nitrogen – an essential nutrient for tree growth. Kobziar will continue her research this summer.

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