Could microbes that were swept from the Sahara desert up into the atmosphere have caused the devastating famine that Ireland endured over a century ago? New theories and research are considering it, pointing to new data as backup for the seemingly outrageous theory.

The Daily Mail reports how new data collected over time have helped shaped new theories about the origin of the pathogen protist P. infestans, which was concluded to be the cause of the seven year infectious famine in Ireland that indirectly caused the death of one million Irish, and drove another estimated one million into emigration.

The new data shows that the Earth’s atmosphere actually extends further - around 100,000 feet - than ever thought before. With this relatively new information, project manager Edward Wright at Citizens in Space, a group devoted to the idea of science and space exploration for and by the masses, hypothesizes that the pathogen could have travelled through the skies prior to arriving in Ireland during the 1840s.

Edward Wright told Wired that thousands of microbial species have been found in the upper atmosphere, some of them traveling up to thousands of kilometers. Though the upper atmospheric environment - dry, nutrient poor and UV-soaked - isn’t typically hospitable, certain organisms can find “refuge” in  protective mineral grains or form spores to survive.

Thanks to the winds between North Africa and the Caribbean, up to one billion tons of dust - with a million bacteria per gram of sand - gets swept up, and spread across the oceans each year. Thus, could the devastating pathogen that landed in Ireland in the 1840s have been blown in from another continent? It is a possibility, as researchers have attributed a widespread coral disease in the Caribbean to a fungus that arrived via African dust.

Now, armed with new information, scientists hope to “track the movements of the extended atmosphere to see where the pathogen may have come from” in order to prevent any situation similar to the famine in Ireland from ever occurring again.

Irish famine memorial, Dublin quaysGoogle Images