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Microbes Survive, and Maybe Thrive, High In the Atmosphere

samzenpus posted about a year and a half ago | from the a-place-in-the-clouds dept.

Earth 37

sciencehabit writes "Each year, hundreds of millions of metric tons of dust, water, and humanmade pollutants make their way into the atmosphere, often traveling between continents on jet streams. Now a new study confirms that some microbes make the trip with them, seeding the skies with billions of bacteria and other organisms—and potentially affecting the weather. What's more, some of these high-flying organisms may actually be able to feed while traveling through the clouds, forming an active ecosystem high above the surface of the Earth."

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Cut and Paste Editing (4, Funny)

Frosty Piss (770223) | about a year and a half ago | (#42721113)

Dozens of times a day, stories are submitted to Slashdot with whole paragraphs cut and pasted into the submission box. Creatures known as "Slashdot Editors" are conditioned with small snacks to tap a large red button labeled "POST LIVE".

Re:Cut and Paste Editing (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42721471)

At least this is better than the misinformed submissions that were written by someone who must have read a different article because the information doesn't even match. I'd rather just have them paste it in verbatim, if anything. Let's not beat around the bush, vetted journalists they are not so let's not pretend.

Re:Cut and Paste Editing (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#42729807)

Wish they had also cut-and-pasted this.

"While it's really exciting to think about microorganisms in the atmosphere that are potentially making a living, there's no evidence of that so far."

That's a NASA microbiologist quoted in the article, contradicting that over-dramatic lead. These microbes were all collected directly above hurricanes, and according to the rest of the article, "these storms seemed to kick up a wide variety of microbes, especially from populated areas, that don't normally make it to the troposphere."

Viruses survive and infect clouds (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42721131)

And microbes infect souls in heaven.

Andromeda strain (1)

noh8rz10 (2716597) | about a year and a half ago | (#42721721)

Tis is andromeda strain. I saw it, you saw it. Next thing, we'll get real life Jurassic park. There was already real life Sphere, but they agreed to go out of existence.

People are always so surprised... (2)

TWX (665546) | about a year and a half ago | (#42721161)

...to find life in places that they hadn't previously considered that they'd find it.

Yet, on the other hand, a lot of science fiction has covered such topics. Even HG Wells' War of the Worlds concludes with the deaths of the Martians, all of them , because of bacterial contamination and the lack of immunity. For all to have died, simply getting into contact with flora and fauna wouldn't be enough, it'd have to be airborne.

Amusingly enough, there's probably life on Mars right now. If it wasn't there before, we probably brought it along when we sent probes over the decades. I would not be surprised if something from the large number of missions flown has survived.

Re:People are always so surprised... (3, Informative)

CrimsonAvenger (580665) | about a year and a half ago | (#42721363)

Even HG Wells' War of the Worlds concludes with the deaths of the Martians, all of them , because of bacterial contamination and the lack of immunity. For all to have died, simply getting into contact with flora and fauna wouldn't be enough, it'd have to be airborne.

Bad example. HG Wells had the Martians injecting "fresh, living human blood into their own veins" as food.

Even without airborne bacteria, that would be enough bacterial exposure to kill you, given the complete lack of immunity they had to Earthly pathogens.

Re:People are always so surprised... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42722491)

Even HG Wells' War of the Worlds concludes with the deaths of the Martians, all of them , because of bacterial contamination and the lack of immunity. For all to have died, simply getting into contact with flora and fauna wouldn't be enough, it'd have to be airborne.

Bad example. HG Wells had the Martians injecting "fresh, living human blood into their own veins" as food.

Even without airborne bacteria, that would be enough bacterial exposure to kill you, given the complete lack of immunity they had to Earthly pathogens.

It goes both ways. Earthly pathogens did not evolve to infect Martians, so you can't really expect them to do well and replicate in an organism environment so foreign.

People joke about the stupid scientists who took their helmets off in Prometheus, but that's the one and only part of that movie I've got no beef with. I'd have no qualms about doing the same, as long as I know the air is breathable. My own worry about be contaminating the environment with my own microbes, making detection of alien life problematic.

Re:People are always so surprised... (1)

war4peace (1628283) | about a year ago | (#42723197)

I have one word for you, my friend: Poison.

Re:People are always so surprised... (1)

sapphire wyvern (1153271) | about a year ago | (#42723339)

Considering that the aliens in Prometheus were thought to have visited Earth on an ongoing basis stretching back to early hominid times, I still think it is unbelievably reckless of the exploration team to assume that there was no risk of biological contamination from Promethean organisms.

Re:People are always so surprised... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#42728059)

Thanks a lot, guys. I guess I can stop reading that book now. Didn't anyone ever tell you to use "Spoiler Alert"??

Re:People are always so surprised... (1)

Longjmp (632577) | about a year and a half ago | (#42721699)

Amusingly enough, there's probably life on Mars right now. If it wasn't there before, we probably brought it along [...]

Nope. People tend to forget that Earth has a huge magnetic shield which protects us (and even microbes in high atmosphere) from cosmic rays/particles.

Most "life" transported from Earth to Mars has been shattered to pieces by now.

And even if some microbes survived the journey to Mars, those microbes came from an environment where they could survive (i.e., Earth's surface).
If they did survive, they won't find an environment that allows them to reproduce, and thus mutate to a form capable of breeding on Mars.
They may be able to hibernate, but that won't help much unless they get (my raw guess) several hundred meters below Mars' surface...

Re:People are always so surprised... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42722843)

Well, it's probably not much of a surprise. Mostly media hype.

I, for one, welcome our new microbial... (2)

stenvar (2789879) | about a year and a half ago | (#42721233)

on second thought, I don't actually.

Great way to explain away (1)

Synerg1y (2169962) | about a year and a half ago | (#42721347)

Ozone layer holes and global warming... let's just shoot some bleach up there folks. That'll fix the crazy weather we've been having.

News: Microbes live in places mammals can't. (1)

DavidClarkeHR (2769805) | about a year and a half ago | (#42721349)

Sorry, not news.

Most people already know that microbes can do things that humans can't. Including live in places that humans are not able. It's not even unique to microbes - rats, cats and elephants can all do things that humans can't.

Re:News: Microbes live in places mammals can't. (2)

bbelt16ag (744938) | about a year and a half ago | (#42721493)

cats live up there? * looks up at the sky* i knew they could jump but DAMN

Re:News: Microbes live in places mammals can't. (1)

Longjmp (632577) | about a year and a half ago | (#42721855)

cats live up there?

Never heard the expression "It's raining cats and dogs?" ;)

Re:News: Microbes live in places mammals can't. (1)

sarysa (1089739) | about a year and a half ago | (#42722141)

Clearly you haven't been to the internet [icanhascheezburger.com] lately. Cats are everything and nothing, the alpha and the omega, predators and noms...

Dup, dup, dup . . . dup of Earl, Earl, Earl . . . (1)

mmell (832646) | about a year and a half ago | (#42721415)

These findings were confirmed long ago by Scoop 7 [wikipedia.org] .

This is old news, and has been known for years. (4, Interesting)

wierd_w (1375923) | about a year and a half ago | (#42721513)

There are actually several noteworthy bacterial species that live almost exclusively in the mid and upper atmospheres.

For instance, here is a story from 2008 about 'rain making' atmospheric microbes. [sciencedaily.com]

This announcement is neither new, nor unexpected, and the hype injected by the media about it serves only to convey how poorly educated certain segments of the population actually are.

Seriously, if there is even the slightest possibility that life could exist in any given environment on earth, there is a reasonable expectation that given a sufficient sampling of those environments, you will find thriving lifeforms that have adapted to that environment. Life is just that pernicious and invasive.

Something as profoundly in contact with huge numbers of open biomes, like the atmosphere, with direct mechanisms of mixing low and high atmosphere contents, it really isn't surprising that microbes have adapted to conditions in the upper atmosphere.

For goodness sake, we have novel species of microbe that have adapted to the extreme conditions of nasa JPL cleanrooms, including intense, sustained UV bombardment. JPL hasn't be around nearly as long as the stratosphere. This isn't hard.

Re:This is old news, and has been known for years. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#42724383)

The part quoted in the summary is definitely old news; I've written about bacteria in the clouds a couple of times on my science blog (seeding rain [wordpress.com] and doing chemistry [wordpress.com] while they're up there); some of that research goes back to the 1970s.

This study does bring something new to the table, though. They sampled cloud water before, during and after two hurricanes and used modern sequencing technology to study the community composition. First of all, previous studies have looked at clouds over land; in this study they show that bacteria are plentiful in clouds over oceans, too. Most of the species they found were bacteria that are aquatic on the surface. They also identified several groups that were found in all of their samples and a few that were exceptionally abundant; these might be groups that are well-adapted to the conditions found in the clouds and are the first steps towards understanding the ecosystem that might exist up there.

Yes, we knew there were bacteria up there. Yes, we might even expect that they would be plentiful, well-adapted and form an ecosystem. We still have to go and show it, though. That's how science proceeds: one step at a time. In fact, I might go ahead and write about this study for my blog, too.

Sagan's atmospheric beasts (2)

gratuitous_arp (1650741) | about a year and a half ago | (#42721593)

Reminds me of Sagan's "atmospheric beasts", the floaters, sinkers and hunters he imagines in the second episode of Cosmos (see around 53:13) -- though TFA is talking about microorganisms on Earth not postulating life on other planets.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ftpVA04_IFc [youtube.com]

Re:Sagan's atmospheric beasts (2)

wierd_w (1375923) | about a year and a half ago | (#42721649)

For any large scale atmospheric organisms, you would need a very nutrient dense atmosphere.

Earth's atmosphere is not terrifically nutrient dense; the vast majority of nutritional sources are terrestrial, and what nutritional materials are present in the upper atmosphere gets up there through limited interactions with the surface.

This would be in sharp contrast to a nutrient dense atmosphere, like that of a gas giant rich in water vapor and CO2 with many bars of pressure. In such circumstances, said atmosphere would have more in common with an ocean, and would be able to support larger lifeforms, both because the density of the atmosphere means more displacement is possible (much like how whales live in earth's oceans), and because more photosynthetic organisms per cubic centimeter could be sustained due to the increased availability of raw materials.

Earth's atmosphere makes it very hard for something bigger than a microbe to stay purpetually suspended on the gas currents present within it, and its low pressure and density make it nutrient poor at higher altitudes. That's why only extremophile microbes live there.

Re:Sagan's atmospheric beasts (1)

AK Marc (707885) | about a year and a half ago | (#42721729)

At least we now have "proof" that life on a gas giant isn't a physical impossibility.

Re:Sagan's atmospheric beasts (1)

Sepodati (746220) | about a year ago | (#42724023)

The book Evolution by Stephen Baxter describes a fictional "air whale" dinosaur that, like a whale, skims the bugs and whatnot that's lofted into the atmosphere. Not quite microbes, but interesting fiction. Thier light bone structure would mean no fossil traces were left. The same with in intelligent, simple tool making dinosaurs - no trace would be left, so how would we know? It's an interesting book.

I know what this is: (1)

canadiannomad (1745008) | about a year and a half ago | (#42721637)

Biotrails!!! It's the planes going overhead!

Ok maybe not, but kinda cool. I'd be curious to see some of those and how they thrive down here... Are they evolutionarily disposed to only living up high and die under the high pressures and hostile environment below, or are they disposed to moving between the ground and the sky?

Good thing these are not man-made nano-pathogens (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42722313)

and being sprayed out of the wingtipped nozzles attached to jets flying over our heads, people might contact morgellons disease or worse...

Venus (1)

Tablizer (95088) | about a year and a half ago | (#42722661)

There are some chemicals in Venus' atmosphere, including carbonyl sulfide, which suggest it may contain life. Both hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide were also found in the same levels, which is suspicious because usually they are not stable together, and break each down into other forms unless replenished by something.

Re:Venus (1)

mbone (558574) | about a year ago | (#42728899)

Yes, the Venera landers and our Pioneer probes found that the upper Venusian atmosphere was not in chemical equilibria.

If there is life in the upper atmosphere here, it is reasonable to assume it is present there. For one thing, meteorites carrying biological material from the Earth (or Mars!) could break up in the middle atmosphere, spreading spores. Unlike the case for Mars, there doesn't seem to be a comparable Venus to Earth mechanism.

Venus (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42722725)

Does anyone recall if the Soviets sampled the Venusian atmosphere while they were there, and if so, did they find anything similar?

Re:Venus (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42722737)

Just in time (see above)

Re:Venus (2)

mbone (558574) | about a year ago | (#42729245)

Yes [mentallandscape.com] , they did [harvard.edu] and, yes, they (and we [harvard.edu] ) did.

Metric? (1)

WillKemp (1338605) | about a year ago | (#42723787)

Why metric tons? "Hundreds of millions of tons" means the same thing as "hundreds of millions of metric tons". Depending on which ton you use, there's only a maximum of 10% difference. "Metric" is superfluous here.

Re:Metric? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#42732037)

Not quite. "Hundreds of millions of tonnes" means the same thing as "hundreds of millions of metric tons", and a 10% difference is significant.

Michael Crichton was right? Uh, oh.... (1)

phamlen (304054) | about a year ago | (#42724721)

Interesting. You know, in 1969, Michael Crichton wrote a 'thriller' about a satellite which was designed to capture upper-atmosphere microorganisms for bio-weapon exploitation Andromeda Strain [wikipedia.org]

Makes you wonder what else he right about, eh? (Cue ominous sound of very large animal coming through the brush...)

Microbee you say? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#42725437)

For a moment there, I read that as the 20 year old microbee cp/m computer was back! And then discovered it was - http://www.microbeetechnology.com.au/

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