The World of Dust: History from Desert to Dinner Table

Prof. Dr. A. Cemal Saydam HÜ. Environmental Engineering Dept. , Dr. Hamide Şenyuva ODTÜ Foodlife International; Translation: Ahmet Akşirin

Let the world animation in this link spin

By clicking once, let it complete a full rotation in front of your eyes. You started to watch for another round, aren’t you? What are those colors? You can see all kinds of things; but what do they stand for? Interesting, isn’t it? Science is working on all those things one by one. What we are interested in are those reddish brown stains. Look once again carefully, and focus on the Sahara Desert.

You are now looking at the widest desert region in the world. Those colors, rising from the Sahara and dispersing to every direction, stand for the dust. Dust originating from the Sahara, which amounts to two billion tons every year, travel for thousands of kilometers away with the aid of carrier wings. Don’t say “so what?”, as those dusts are the beginning of every single thing. I cannot exactly say how it started first or where it started, but we found and presented a way to track the origins of life back to the Sahara; now we want to share it with you.

PROF Dr. CEMAL SAYDAM. I was born in Istanbul in 1951. I completed undergraduate (1974) and graduate (1976) degrees at the Department of Chemistry at Middle East Technical University (METU). I received my doctorate (1981) from the University of Liverpool. I have studied at Erdemli Institute of Marine Sciences of METU from 1981 to 1995. From 1997 to 2004 I have worked at various positions, including vice presidency, at TUBITAK. Currently, I am a faculty member at Environmental Engineering Department of Hacettepe University. I have done advanced researches in Turkey’s seas, at the largest Turkish research vessel “R/V Bilim”. My subjects of specialization are the Sea of Marmara, the Turkish Straits, and the Golden Horn. Long distance transport of desert dusts and the fertile rains resulting from dusts’ reactions in clouds, including their effects in nature, are still areas of interest for me. I have founded the first fully-automatic snow observation stations in Turkey, at Eastern Anatolia Upper Euphrates Basin; I have also founded Turkey’s first NOAA AVHRR satellite data receiver at Erdemli. I was the designer of COBAN sensor for Turkey’s first satellite BILSAT. During my academic career, I have published 37 SCI articles and have had 1586 citations up to now, raising my “h-index” to 18. An academic’s success should primarily be evaluated by the success of the pupils he or she had raised, rather than his or her own. In this context, the first doctorate student that I had supervised now surpassed me, with respect to both the amount of publishing and citations, reaching to an “h-index”” of 22.

If I wanted to show some examples that would amaze you and make you say “come on, really?” I would immediately present these:

The events leading to climate changes start with dusts, especially with Saharan dust.

The only factor providing the formation and plenitude of rain is Saharan dust.

The chain of events that gives rise to the formation of amino acids in the atmosphere is also initiated by the same dust. Namely, the beginning of life, or to say “the creation of man from a piece of clay” is caused by the same dust.

Having mentioned amino acids, let us start from this topic. Speaking of life is almost equal to speaking of amino acids. Many experiments on this crucial step have been attempted, which can be summed as forming organic matter out of inorganic matter. The famous Miller-Urey experiments have investigated the beginnings of life and have demonstrated the formation of amino acids.

In the image above (1) the dust are represented by red and brown colors. These dust, which remain dry and stationary at the Sahara Desert and are carried by winds, have drawn attention in the scientific community only as a topic of transportation of dusts.

However, Turkish scientists have found out what these dusts do as a result of their travels among clouds and have presented their findings to the scientific community. Currently, they are investigating the events occurring in the mysterious world of dusts, a subject that goes against our common body of knowledge.

Everything begins with the contact of water in clouds with dust, in the process of the long distance transportation of dust. In a particle of dust that meets with a droplet of water, trillions times trillions of bacteria and fungi become active swiftly and bring about oxalate. As oxalate (base of oxalic acid) conjoins with clay minerals, iron oxalate comes about.  When all these events inside clouds are reinforced by plenty of solar energy in daytime, iron oxalate breaks up, leaving behind iron compounds, carbon dioxide, also methane, according to our latest researches.

All of them are organic nutrients and they are also greenhouse gases, for our point of view. But, each of them has its own use. Carbon is required for the formation of organic matter. Since they are greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane warm up their surroundings in cool environments such as clouds. However, this warming up is at a molecular level. Very valuable amine groups emerge due to the breakup of the structure, which causes formations of methane and of the composition that we are inspecting. These amine groups are fundamental constituents of the vital amino acids that are known to be formed in clouds.

Water droplets in clouds, also known as droplets of distilled water, are increasingly enriched with these valuable chemicals, bacteria, and fungi. Caused by dust and newly formed oxalate, and via the phenomenon the patent of which is registered by me, rain droplets are formed. Eventually, this rich mixture starts its journey to the surface of the earth due to gravity.

The most probable locations for these droplets to fall on are oceans, followed by land. Both recipient environments appreciate the value of rainwater. In oceans, rainwater supports the formation of algae. Even those tiny anchovies prefer the time of fertile rains to lay their eggs instead of rains in winter.

Rainwater also supports life on land, providing growth for anything that lives on it. Have another look at the image above. For millions of years, dust rising from the Sahara have been moving towards the Amazon rainforest. Passing over the ocean being almost dry, dust fall at the Amazon via rains at every noon. Western World still thinks that these rains are sources of phosphate, natural sources of nutrition. However, we know the difference know; dusts have nothing to do with phosphate. Dusts have no use when they are dry, yet when they reach the Amazons and get in contact with the water in the air, then everything changes.

In the depths of the Amazon, there are tribes that have not met with technology yet. Every member of these tribes is plump and healthy, being full of nutrients. Nevertheless, they do not know how to benefit from the advantages of civilization. All of them are almost completely naked; willingly or unwillingly, they are soaked with these nutritious rains every single day.

Tobacco is grown both in Turkey and in Cuba. Though, Cuban tobacco leaves are huge compared to those in Turkey. The Saharan dust causes this difference. Because, the being on the ground is stimulated by commands such as “Take in as much as it arrives” and “Expand your surface area to receive more”. Of course it is a longer story, there are chains ranging from algae in the seas to different climates. We can talk about them later, but these dusts affect the balance on Earth after with their journeys in clouds. We are seeking to understand this course and abide by it, as much as we can.

Our latest experiments were on plants called duckweed (Lemna minor), which are fast growing plants with leaflets in threes or fours.

The leaves of this plant, which has a total lifetime of 20-21 days, begin to turn yellow after 5 to 6 days in environments with normal hydration. However, plants that are nourished with fertile rains start turning yellow after 8 to 9 days. The difference between 5-6 days and 8-9 days in a total lifespan of 20-21 days! Do you think we found the way to prolong life?

The plants called duckweed (Lemna minor), which are fast growing plants with leaflets in threes or fours.


Now let the world in the provided link rotate once again. We have only mentioned the Sahara but there are others. Take a look at Asia, in the northern hemisphere. Check the dusts rising from the deserts of Gobi and Taklimakan, and observe the routes they spread. At the end of the day, they are deserts, with no benefit to themselves; but the recipient environments are fertile green. Pass on to the southern hemisphere, look at Argentina, and observe the contribution of Patagonia and the high plateaus of Bolivia. Look at South Africa and Australia; there are different regions that are under the influence of each desert. It is as if the entire Earth is subject to the sovereignty of these dusts, and there are different species in each different recipient environment.

As you can also see in the dusts animation, once desert dusts leave their sources they all move eastward via the trade winds, except for the movement from the Sahara to the Atlantic. Namely, dust from Afghanistan never reaches our country Turkey, but Saharan dust can travel to Afghanistan. According to the analyses we made, an old dry lake located on the border between Afghanistan and Iran carries more valuable properties than that of the Sahara. In other words, it is a food storage; but sadly this makes it the center of opium farming, which is the cause making Taliban powerful there. 

When we found high quality soil, we enhanced our experiments to research its effects. We fed a type of seed, called Gönen 98, with both Saharan dust and Afghan dust. The expectation was to obtain better growth with Afghan dust, but results were the opposite. Despite the fact that Afghan dust is superior with its compounds essential for soil and with its high concentration of nutritive salts, our native seeds (Anatolian) did not favor Afghan dust; while it grew very well with Saharan dust. This unexpected event impelled us to look for seeds native to Afghanistan. At the Iranian side of the dry lake situated on the Afghan-Iranian border, we found seeds from Zabol. These seeds grow on the same soil, where our dust specimens came from. We fed it with both Afghan and Saharan dust and the results were spectacular. Namely, Afghan seeds recognized Saharan dust, which has been nourishing them for thousands of years. Naturally, seeds also favored Afghan dust of their native soil, and grew very well in ideal conditions. In the past, wheat varieties (called Bezostaja) that are mainly cultivated in Russia and Mexico and that are resistant to cold and drought had been tried to cultivate in our country. Both varieties succeeded, since Saharan dust reaches both countries. If someone had imported Argentinian wheat and tried to cultivate it in Turkey, results would be either a miracle or most probably a great disappointment.

Dusts rising from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran have another common feature. They are dry when they rise and when they fall. The reason is that their chances of meeting a cloud are low. However, recipient environments have adapted to it, having programmed themselves for thousands of years according to the circumstances. Fish prefer the Arabian Sea, which is one of the most fertile seas, for the same reason. It is also because of dusts that the periphery of Antarctica is a good source of nutrition.

A story that reaches from deserts to your dining table. Every part of it requires a separate explanation. We have just taken a look at the World from a different angle; that is all. If you ask, “What good is it to know all of this?” I would remind you the former sentence. It is possible to actualize the journey that spans from deserts to our tables, everywhere and every time. Hence, understanding how nature works makes it possible to develop the art of intervening in, by most natural means. We are continuing our studies in order to achieve this.

The beginning of all these events arose from bacteria and fungi that had been sleeping in dust particles for thousands of years. What if Rosetta, which had successfully sent a probe to 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko comet, informs us that it found bacteria or fungi there? Do you think we can initiate life in other planets too?


  • 1. Saydam, A. C., and H. Z. Senyuva. "Deserts: Can they be the potential suppliers of bioavailable iron?." Geophysical research letters 29.11 (2002): 19-1.
  • 2. Saydam, A. C. "Can we predict harmful algae blooms." Harmful Algae News 15 (1996): 5-6.
  • 3. Mace, Kimberly A., Nilgün Kubilay, and Robert A. Duce. "Organic nitrogen in rain and aerosol in the eastern Mediterranean atmosphere: An association with atmospheric dust." Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres (1984–2012) 108.D10 (2003).