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The high life: Transport of microbes in the atmosphere.


Microbes (bacteria, fungi, algae, and viruses) are the most successful types of life on Earth because of their ability to adapt to new environments, reproduce quickly, and disperse globally. Dispersal occurs through a number of vectors, such as migrating animals or the hydrological cycle, but transport by wind may be the most common way microbes spread. General awareness of airborne microbes predates the science of microbiology. People took advantage of wild airborne yeasts to cultivate lighter, more desirable bread as far back as ancient Egypt by simply leaving a mixture of grain and liquids near an open window. In 1862, Louis Pasteur’s quest to disprove spontaneous generation resulted in the discovery that microbes were actually single-celled, living creatures, prevalent in the environment and easily killed with heat (pasteurization). His rudimentary experiments determined that any nutrient medium left open to the air would eventually teem with microbial life because of free-floating, colonizing cells. The same can happen in a kitchen: Opportunistic fungal and bacterial cells cause food items exposed to the air to eventually spoil.