UF aerobiologist invents device to study high-altitude dust

The DART device is shown on its maiden voyage at the Kennedy Space Center last week.

Tyler Jones/IFAS
Published: Wednesday, December 11, 2013 at 2:16 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, December 11, 2013 at 2:16 p.m.

Dust isn’t just that annoying film on your furniture.

We breathe in millions of dust particles every minute — and some of those come from as far away as Africa and Asia.

Some of those dust particles are also harmful, containing pathogens that might be one of the reasons behind your child’s asthma.

To learn more about these far-flung dust particles, a University of Florida scientist has invented a device that sits on an airplane and can scoop up dust particle samples. Called DART, which stands for Dust at Altitude Recovery Technology, the 7-foot-long cylindrical device also resembles a large dart, nestled beneath the body of an airplane.

Andrew Schuerger, an aerobiologist at UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, invented the device to go beyond previous attempts to collect dust, which had involved putting devices on the tops of buildings and sending up huge balloons that ended up popping mid-air, Schuerger said.

The DART is the first device to gather dust from high altitudes, and last week, it completed its maiden voyage above the Kennedy Space Center, sucking in dust samples at 1,000, 5,000 and 10,000 feet above the ground. Researchers are starting to analyze the dust filters.

The Florida Space Grant Consortium and the Florida Space Institute supported Schuerger’s research, and their interest in it stems from a desire to keep the microbial contamination to a minimum on a spacecraft launch, Schuerger said.

“If we send a rover to Mars, we don’t want to ship a very rich microbial community from Earth along with it,” he said. “We want to control Earth microbes that might be inadvertent hitchhikers. We don’t want to ruin science questions on the surface of Mars.”

Dust pathogens residing closer to home might pose other problems, Schuerger continued.

For example, one bacterium found in the dust particles, called bacillus megaterium, causes a disease on elm trees.

“If I recover this from a dust plume, I would take those growing bacteria and isolate them and expose them to elm tissue,” Schuerger said.

He added that whether certain pathogens pose a human health risk through airborne diseases is “yet to be determined.”

“The first step is to at least identify the potential for a problem and potential risks,” he said. “Then we can begin consulting with health professionals from a wide range of fields ... If we hear of a huge dust storm, doctors might expect respiratory diseases. It might help explain some things that we don’t understand at this point.”

Dale Griffin, an environmental and public health microbiologist at the U.S. Geological Survey in St. Petersburg, added, “Usually children raised in areas with high levels of dust have higher levels of asthma.” He also said the information could be used to issue health alerts, for example, advising people to wear masks.

However, not all pathogens are bad, Schuerger added.

“The Caribbean islands get a lot of their nutrients (for the) rich rainforests from dust storms that have put plant-growth promoting phosphorus and iron in the natural ecosystems,” he said.

The dust is believed to travel through trade winds blowing clockwise from Africa, and turbulence can keep it in the atmosphere for a long time, Schuerger added.

Although UV light kills a lot of the particles en route, those on the bottom of a dust column, for example, are shielded by the particles above them, which act like a sunscreen.

Griffin said the device has the potential for various applications around the world.

“We’ve needed a device like that ... not only to look at these dust storms but (monitor) how crop pathogens move from one area to another,” Griffin said.

The DART, which fits on helicopters or military aircraft, could also be used to measure radiation after major disasters such as Chernobyl and the nuclear disaster following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Griffin said.

“So it’s a device that’s very versatile and needed,” he said.

Although the device itself is novel, the problem of traveling dust has been around a long time, Schuerger said.

“Even Darwin on his famous voyages on the Beagle was sailing in these dust plumes in Africa, and these boats were covered by dust.”

Contact Kristine Crane at 338-3119, or kristine.crane@gvillesun.com.

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