(Inside Science TV) -- Every year, dust from African dust storms travels thousands of miles across the ocean, where it can affect the air in the United States.
"Everybody on the planet is breathing dust," said Andrew Schuerger, a plant pathologist and aerobiologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville. He added that breathing dust can be dangerous for plants, animals and humans. "You can have a sort of respiratory reaction from breathing in too much dust. There can be pathogens in the dust."
While some dust particles are large and stay close to the ground, there are other fine particles that are swept up into high altitudes and can fly hundreds, even thousands, of miles away. However, these dust samples are a challenge to capture and analyze, so it is difficult to say if these dust particles could be a health concern.
Now, researchers at the University of Florida have created the first high-altitude sampling device to collect microorganisms from the upper atmosphere. It's called "DART," short for Dust at Altitude Recovery Technology.
"We can now fly above the ground mixing area, [called 'the boundary layer'], ... and capture dust that is primarily from Africa, with very little surface contamination," said Schuerger.
DART is strapped under an aircraft's wing. Scientists traveling in the plane turn on a pump and open special doors to collect air samples.
DART can fly through several layers of dust and sample the air at different altitudes.
Scientists hope that by studying these air samples they can identify the frequency and types of microbes found in African dust.
"Then, we can start giving recommendations on how we might modify agricultural management," added Schuerger.
It is technology that may provide answers to a problem that starts an ocean away.