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Science Notes: Dust provides clues to home’s microbes; wild Uganda chimps using clay as food

Dust provides clues to a home’s microbes

An analysis of dust from 1,200 homes across the continental United States provides new information about the fungal and bacterial communities sharing the great indoors with us.

“Our homes are ecosystems that we spend a lot of time in, and so we approached this with a very general question,” said Noah Fierer, a microbial ecologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder and one of the study’s authors. “What type of microbes and fungi do we see in our homes?”

The study, which appears in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, found the types of bacteria found in a house were significantly influenced by the female-to-male ratio of its residents and whether pets were present. Indoor fungal communities, on the other hand, depend largely on the location of the home.

“Most fungi are coming from outside via windows, ventilation and your clothing,” Fierer said.

He and his colleagues recruited citizens to provide samples of dust on the upper trim of a door in their homes, which usually collects dust and is infrequently cleaned.

“This is baseline data,” Fierer said. “We’re starting to get a handle on what sorts of microbes we see in homes, and the next step is looking at how this affects human health.”

Wild Uganda chimps are using clay as food

Wild chimpanzees in Uganda have begun eating clay, which furnishes dietary minerals to them, a new study reports.

“I’d never seen this, and I’ve been observing them since 1962,” said Vernon Reynolds, a professor emeritus of biological anthropology at Oxford University and an author of the study, published in PLOS One. “Now, just recently, they’re really going for it in a big way.”

The researchers studied chimpanzees living in the Budongo Forest. Reynolds and his colleagues believe the chimps have turned to clay because of the widespread destruction of local raffia palm trees.

The chimpanzees used to eat the decayed pith of the tree, which contains minerals. The clay they have begun eating has “plenty of aluminum in it, high concentrations of iron, lots of manganese, magnesium and potassium,” Reynolds said. “It’s a cocktail of minerals.”

Raffia trees are being killed by local tobacco farmers, who strip the trees of leaves for use in curing and drying tobacco.

The chimpanzees also relied on raffia palm trees as a source of sodium, but the clay does not have high sodium levels.

“We don’t know how they’ve replaced it,” he said. “But they are not short of salt, or else they’d show signs of deterioration.”

– New York Times