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Storm clouds crawling with bacteria

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Bacteria living in storm clouds could seed the ice crystals that form rain, new research suggests Credit: NCAR Bacteria living in storm clouds could seed the ice crystals that form rain, new research suggests Credit: NCAR
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The storm clouds in Earth's atmosphere are filled with microbial life,according to a new study.

The research, published today (Jan. 23) in the journal PLoS One, revealedthat hailstonesdrawn from storm clouds harbor several species of bacteria that tend to resideon plants, as well as thousands of organic compounds normally found in soil.Some of the bacterial species can seed the tiny ice crystals that lead to rain,suggesting they play a role in causingrain.

"Those storm clouds are quite violent phenomena," said studyco-author Tina Santl Temkiv, an environmental chemist at AarhusUniversity in Denmark."They are sucking huge amounts of air from under the clouds, and that'show the bacteria probably got into the cloud."

Living on a cloud

In the past, researchers have found bacterial life in clouds that drift overmountaintops. Bacteria have been found as far up as 24.8 miles (40 kilometers)and may even surviveas spores into space, Temkiv said. [HoleyClouds: Gallery of Formations Cut By Airplanes]

Temkiv and her colleagues wanted to see if bacteria lived in the violentstorm clouds that hover above the Earth's surface. To find out, they studied 42hailstones that had formed in a thunderstorm over Ljubljana, Slovenia,in May 2009.

After carefully removing the outer layer and sterilizing the hailstone, theyanalyzed its chemical composition.

The team found thousands of organic, or carbon-containing, compounds —nearly as many as found in a typical river, Temkiv said. In addition, theyfound several species of bacteria that normally live on plants. Some of thebacteria make a pinkish pigment that allows them to withstand the punishingultraviolet rays in the atmosphere.

Some of bacteria found are ice-nucleators, meaning they can act as seeds forice crystals to attach to in the clouds above Earth.When these same ice crystals get large enough, they fall as rain or snow,depending on the air temperature.

The findings suggest that bacteria could influence weather patterns,possibly making rain, Temkiv said.

"They may be growing in clouds, increasing in number and then modifyingthe chemistry in the cloud but also in the atmosphere indirectly," shetold LiveScience.

The researchers think the bacteria come from the air hovering just aboveEarth that gets swept into the storm clouds through updrafts. That wouldsuggest the atmosphere is a thread that can connect distantecosystems, and that certain bacteria may be better at colonizing farawayenvironments, Pierre Amato, a researcher at France'sBlaise Pascal Universitywho was not involved in the study, wrote in an email.

"Clouds can be thought of as transient ecosystems selecting for certain[types of bacteria] that are better fitted than others, and that can thusquickly disperse over the globe," Amato said. "Understanding howmicrobes disperse is relevant, of course, for epidemiology, and also formicrobial ecology."
Storm clouds crawling with bacteria

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