50 years ago, scientists suspected microbes flourished in clouds

Excerpt from the November 14, 1970 issue of Science News

a photo of clouds

Bacteria and other microbes that get swept into the atmosphere can influence weather.

Pattys-photos/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

cover of November 14 1970 issue of Science News

Clouds may be ecosystems  Science News, November 14, 1970

Clouds in the sky may contain living microbial ecosystems…. [Research] determined that metabolic activity, in the form of CO2 uptake into organic material, occurred in [airborne] dust over a 24-hour period, whereas it did not occur in sterilized control dust.

Update

The atmosphere is rich in microbial life. One census documented some 28,000 bacterial species in samples of water from clouds above a mountain in France, scientists reported in 2017. Research building over the last decade or so has supported the claim that some bacteria may indeed be metabolically active within their hazy abodes. One species of B­acillus, for example, eats sugar floating in the atmosphere to build a coating — perhaps to shield itself from ultraviolet radiation and low temperatures (SN: 2/7/15, p. 5). Some scientists suspect cloud bacteria contribute to Earth’s carbon and nitrogen cycles, and even influence weather (SN: 6/18/11, p. 12). The microbes can spur ice crystals to form, triggering rain and snow — and a ride back to Earth’s surface.

Cassie Martin

Cassie Martin is a deputy managing editor. She has a bachelor's degree in molecular genetics from Michigan State University and a master's degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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