They came from above

All photos by Brendan Borrell

Opportunistic infections seem to pop up out of nowhere, but new strains are appearing in new places, striking otherwise healthy animals - including humans. A few microbiologists go hunting.

By Brendan Borrell

n the spring of 2000, veterinarian Craig Stephen walked up to the biology department at Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo for what he thought would be a routine autopsy of a dead porpoise. "In my experience of doing stranded marine mammals, the vast majority of them, you don't get anything," says Stephen, who runs the university's Center for Coastal Health, "They've died, they've sunk, they've started to rot, they float back up, they get on the beach and then somebody finds them."

Related Articles


Karen Bartlett holds up a petri dish dotted with Cryptococcus gattii colonies.

All photos by Brendan Borrell

Biologists now recognize that this dogma is...

1. M.A. O'Malley. "The nineteenth century roots of 'everything is everywhere', Nat Rev Microbiol, 5:647-51, 2007.
2. S.G. Tringe et al., "The airborne metagenome in an indoor urban environment," PLOS One, 3:e1862, 2008.
3. D.W. Griffin, "Atmospheric movement of microorganisms in clouds of desert dust and implications for human health," Clin Microbiol Rev, 20:459-77, 2007.
4. K.B. Ritchie and G.W. Smith, "Cause of sea fan death in the West Indies," Nature, 394:137-8, 1998
5. J.R. Weir-Bush et al., "The relationship between gorgonian coral (Cnideria: Gorgonacea) diseases and African dust storms," Aerobiologia, 20:119-26, 2004.
6. L. Perez et al., "Coarse particles from Saharan dust and daily mortality," Epidemiology, 19:800-7, 2008.
7. S.E. Kidd et al., "A rare genotype of Cryptococcus gattii caused the cryptococcosis outbreak on Vancouver Island (British Columbia, Canada)," Proc Natl Acad Sci, 101:17258-63, 2004.

Interested in reading more?

Magaizne Cover

Become a Member of

Receive full access to digital editions of The Scientist, as well as TS Digest, feature stories, more than 35 years of archives, and much more!