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Microbiome. 2017 Mar 10;5(1):32. doi: 10.1186/s40168-017-0249-7.

Legal immigrants: invasion of alien microbial communities during winter occurring desert dust storms.

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Research and Innovation Centre, Fondazione Edmund Mach, Via E. Mach 1, 38010 San Michele all'Adige, Trento, Italy.
Institute of Biometeorology, National Research Council (IBIMET-CNR), Via Caproni 8, 50145, Florence, Italy.
Institute of Agricultural Biology and Biotechnology, National Research Council (IBBA-CNR), Via Moruzzi 1, 56124, Pisa, Italy.
Institute for the Dynamics of Environmental Processes, National Research Council (IDPA-CNR), Via Torino 155, 30172, Mestre, Venice, Italy.
Department of Environmental Sciences, Informatics and Statistics, University Ca' Foscari of Venice, Via Torino 155, 30172, Mestre, Venice, Italy.
Institute of Ecology, University of Innsbruck, Technikerstraße 25, 6020, Innsbruck, Austria.
Institute of Biometeorology, National Research Council (IBIMET-CNR), Via Caproni 8, 50145, Florence, Italy.
Department of Biology, University of Florence, Via Madonna del Piano 6, 50019, Sesto Fiorentino, Florence, Italy.
Institute of Biometeorology, National Research Council (IBIMET-CNR), Via Caproni 8, 50145, Florence, Italy.



A critical aspect regarding the global dispersion of pathogenic microorganisms is associated with atmospheric movement of soil particles. Especially, desert dust storms can transport alien microorganisms over continental scales and can deposit them in sensitive sink habitats. In winter 2014, the largest ever recorded Saharan dust event in Italy was efficiently deposited on the Dolomite Alps and was sealed between dust-free snow. This provided us the unique opportunity to overcome difficulties in separating dust associated from "domestic" microbes and thus, to determine with high precision microorganisms transported exclusively by desert dust.


Our metagenomic analysis revealed that sandstorms can move not only fractions but rather large parts of entire microbial communities far away from their area of origin and that this microbiota contains several of the most stress-resistant organisms on Earth, including highly destructive fungal and bacterial pathogens. In particular, we provide first evidence that winter-occurring dust depositions can favor a rapid microbial contamination of sensitive sink habitats after snowmelt.


Airborne microbial depositions accompanying extreme meteorological events represent a realistic threat for ecosystem and public health. Therefore, monitoring the spread and persistence of storm-travelling alien microbes is a priority while considering future trajectories of climatic anomalies as well as anthropogenically driven changes in land use in the source regions.


Airborne pathogens; Alpine soils; Climate change; Desert dust storm; Ecosystem and public health; Global warming; Invasion; Long-distance dispersal; Metagenomics; Microbial ecology

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