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The Biology of Fog: Gobabeb researchers find diverse microbial communities in Namib fog

The Biology of Fog: Gobabeb researchers find diverse microbial communities in Namib fog

Robert Logan and Sarah Evans, Michigan State University

Anyone who’s spent time in the Namib knows how important fog is. Stipagrostis grasses use their leaves to channel fog down to their roots, Lepidochora beetles build trenches to collect fog water, reptiles of all types drink water off their bodies, and the iconic fog basking beetle (Onymacris unguicularis) can drink up to 40% of its body weight in water during a single fog event.  From the Skeleton Coast down to the Namib Sand Sea, coastal fog brings in vital water that supports these organisms in what is otherwise a tremendously dry landscape.  But a research team working at Gobabeb found that fog isn’t just bringing it water, it’s also carrying something else: living organisms.

 

Sarah Evans, a professor at Michigan State University in the United States, and her graduate student Robert Logan, set out to figure out what kind of microorganisms might be living in the fog and air in the Namib and whether the fog (which often originates out over the Atlantic Ocean) was carrying marine microbes into the heart of the desert.  The researchers then teamed up with another team studying fog in a very different setting: Dr. Eli Dueker at Bard College and Dr. Kathleen Weathers at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies collecting fog in Maine, USA, another iconic coastal environment. Both areas receive tremendous amount of fog water throughout the year that support many of the plants and animals.

 

They used the dew collector at Gobabeb’s weather station to collect fog water (after first sterilizing it).  After fog condensed and accumulated in a trough, they used syringes to push the water through special filters with holes so small that they retained bacterial and fungal cells (over 200 times thinner than a human hair).  Once they had collected the organisms, they could then sequence their DNA in order to determine who they are.  The team also set out open petri dishes during fogs to grow organisms that were living in the air.

 

The researchers found that in both coastal environments, fog contained diverse groups of bacteria and fungi, including many of which are commonly found in the ocean and in soils from the surrounding desert.  When the team sampled before and after specific fog events, they found that the community of microbes in the air were different, meaning that the fog likely changed what was living in the air.

 

What does this mean for the environment? And for the people that live in it? The results show that fog helps to decide which microbes are entering the Namib ecosystem, and how often. Distant or unique microbes being deposited by fog means plants and animals in the Namib have a different selection of microbes to help carry out their functions – or to defend themselves from. Since pathogens (bacterial and fungal diseases) were also found in fog, this suggests that fog biology could be important for the health of ecosystems and society. 

 

 

For more information:

[Link to article: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0048969718330134]

[Link to Evans Lab website: http://saraheevanslab.weebly.com/]

[Link to Robert’s website: http://jrobertlogan.weebly.com/]

[Link to Atlantic coverage: https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/08/fog-microbes/568411/]

dunes and fog

 

 fog microbs 5

 

 

 

 

fog microbs 4 fog microbs 2 fog microbs 3

fog microbs

 

 

 

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