In preparation…

by Jim Caryl


ON Friday I fly to Melbourne, Australia, to visit my Sister who lives and works out there. I’m not fond of long haul flights, especially when I’m flying economy, but I am very excited none the less. The flight could go either of two ways: I may decide to relax and just watch hours of on demand films and TV, something I rarely get to do on a day to day basis; or I could write. I could write about all the things I’ve been meaning to write about, but haven’t for lack of time.

I wrote a short story in my head the other day about a woman with a huge mole on her nose. She becomes obsessed with it, and the fact that people stare at it all the time ( interestingly the topic of why we stare was covered in a recent article by Wired magazine). After a while the woman decides to have the mole removed, and she is left with a perfect nose, but now no-one stares at her any more. She find this really depressing, she feels alone and isolated, no longer the focus of any attention. Sometimes we surgically excise things from our lives that we think we hate, but in fact they turn out to be crucial to whom we are.

I’ve also been meaning to write about atmospheric microbiology, or aeromicrobiology; it’s a fascinating discipline studying the world in which microbial life surfs the jet stream high up in the atmosphere, surviving the extremely harsh environment: low pressure, freezing cold, low oxygen and high radiation. The Scientist magazine ran an interesting article on it some months ago, entitled ‘They came from above’, by science writer Brendan Borrell (Volume 22 | Issue 12 | Page 36; you can get it via Borrell’s clip archive).

Borrell describes a key event in aeromicrobiology as when Fred Meier of the US Department of Agriculture convinced Charles Lindberg to collect [air] samples during an Arctic flight from Maine to Denmark in 1933, where they found everything from fungal spores to algae and diatoms. Sometimes these wayward, or more appropriately ‘windward’, bugs are more serious that we give them credit. Borrell goes on to describe an outbreak of the [normally tropical] fungal pathogen Cryptococcus near Vancouver in 2001, where vets recorded 12 cases of Cryptococcus in domestic dogs, cats (and even Llamas). The outbreak dated from 1999 and a USDA APHIS report of it is available here, it makes for interesting reading.

The idea that this organism may have arrived on the wind, or may have been lurking in the valley, only for its spores to become airborne and ‘bloom’ in the hot summer of 2001, is understandably something worth investigating. Studies have identified links with atmospheric dust from North African dust storms bringing infectious and irritant fungal spores and allergens to Spain, and even as far as Barbados where one strain (Aspergillus sydowii) was found to be responsible for killing sea fan coral in the Caribbean (more detail about that event here).

Cases of wind-borne fever have been documented previously, in one case people in the populated areas of the Cote du Rhone region of southern France suffered from the zoonotic (i.e. from animal) disease Q-fever, caused by the bacteria Coxiella burnetii, borne the Mistral wind, the cool dry wind that blows through the South of France, from rural areas inhabited by some 70,000 sheep. Obviously there’s not a lot you can do about this, other than monitor such occurrences, but knowing more about it is a good start.

I’m sure there is a backlog of other articles and people I need to discuss, so in the next two weeks you will either see a photoblog of people and places in Victoria, Australia (taken with my new Sigma 10-20 mm lens), or a rather large body of writing. More likely it’ll be a bit of both, or neither; how’s that for clarity?

Anyway, returning to my impending trip, I still have a major experiment to get under way this week, which really does need to go well. I have a lot of man-hours invested in this, and it all essentially comes down to two sets of experiments, each looking for the same reaction to happen in two completely different environments. They’re fiddly, they can easily go wrong, and they’ll be labour intensive – not the best combination when really I should be deciding if I need to decide whether I should be taking sandals or warm boots to Melbourne in Winter.

So it goes.