22 Aug 2011: Analysis

The Long Strange Journey
Of Earth’s Traveling Microbes

Airborne microbes can travel thousands of miles and high into the stratosphere. Now scientists are beginning to understand the possible role of these microbes — such as bacteria, fungal spores, and tiny algae — in creating clouds, causing rain, spreading disease, and even changing climate.

by fred pearce

Consider the African rain dance. People in tribal costumes stamping the ground to make rain — it’s nonsense, you might say. Except that we now know it could actually work. If you have enough dancers, there may be no better way to make rain, because bugs in the soil and surface vegetation make exceptionally good cloud- and ice-condensation nuclei — and rain dances stir them up.

Microbes, it turns out, are the hidden players in the atmosphere, making clouds, causing rain, spreading diseases between continents, and maybe even changing climates as well. Eos, published by the American Geophysical Union, last month reported that bio-aerosols are “leading the high life.” In the Eos article, David Smith of the University of Washington and colleagues argue that microbes are “the most successful types of life on Earth” and are the unacknowledged players in many planetary processes, particularly in the atmosphere. It’s time we caught up with them.

Back in 1979, Russell Schnell of the University of Colorado was in western Kenya wondering why the tea plantations there held the world record for hailstorms. They occurred 132 days a year. He discovered that tiny particles of dead and decaying leaves in the soil bore a close resemblance to the tiny particles around which hailstones formed. They were, it turned out, far better adapted to the task even than man-made cloud seeding chemicals like silver iodide.

Schnell, who is now deputy director of the Global Monitoring Division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, concluded that “the feet of hundreds of tea pickers going about their daily jobs” were to blame for the hail. By kicking the bits of leaf into the air, he said, the tea pickers must be providing the abundant ice-nucleators that created the hailstorms. He published in Tellus in 1982, revealing that the critical actors in this Kenyan drama were the bacteria, Pseudomonas syringae, that attached
‘Bioprecipitation’ is a hot topic, more so as we learn how much biological matter is in the atmosphere.
themselves to the leaves as they rotted — the tea pickers sent the leaf bits airborne as they walked the fields picking the tea leaves from the bushes.

Biologists have long known that many species of bacteria trigger frost damage on vegetation, with Pseudomonas syringae the most efficient. The bacteria have evolved a gene that promotes spontaneous ice nucleation at around minus 2 degrees Celsius, much warmer than would happen otherwise. Their ice-making skills allow them to break down the cell walls of the plants they feed on. But it seems they also use the same skill in clouds.

Mineral and salt particles are present in large numbers in clouds and can act as condensation nuclei. But many bacteria, as well as fungal spores and tiny algae, are the cloud condensation nuclei of choice because they can work at higher temperatures. Since the formation of ice is normally the first step in the creation of raindrops in clouds, they are probably critical in the creation of rain. “Numerous studies,” say Smith and his colleagues in Eos, “have shown that many... condensation nuclei responsible for climate and precipitation patterns are in fact airborne micro-organisms, living or dead.”

And that, Smith says, means any human activity that puts more bugs in the air is potentially a rain-making activity, whether it is tramping tea plantations or cooking up a big rain dance. “Exactly how higher concentrations of airborne micro-organisms will interact with other variables that drive weather and precipitation is a major unknown in the climate change equation,” he says.

Schnell’s original observation was largely ignored by the wider science community. But recent papers have made similar observations in other places. For instance, Brent Christner, a microbiologist at Louisiana State University, reported in Science in 2008 that he had found “ubiquitous and abundant” microbes in fresh snowfall sampled from Antarctica to Montana – between 70 and 100 percent of ice nucleators found in the snow were biological.

Pseudomonas syringae
Shawn Doyle and Brent Christner/LSU
Pseudomonas syringae cells trapped in an ice lattice in the laboratory of Louisiana State University researchers.
This, Christner points out, was especially remarkable since he was sampling snow in areas where there was no local vegetation. The microbes had traveled a long way to do their job. “It’s a wake-up call,” he says. “Biological particles do seem to play a very important role in generating snowfall and rain.”

Then in May this year, at a meeting of the American Society of Microbiology, Alexander Michaud of Montana State University in Bozeman reported finding high concentrations of bacteria in hailstones falling on his campus.

“Bioprecipitation” is a hot topic. And the more so as we learn how much biological matter there is in the atmosphere — more than 10,000 individual bacteria per cubic meter of air over the land, according to a 2009 study by Susannah Burrows of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany. These bacteria spend an average of about a week in the atmosphere; but while some stay close to the ground, others soar into the stratosphere, says Smith. Weather balloons have even found them in the mesosphere, up to 77 kilometers aloft, according to a forgotten study by Soviet scientist A. A. Imshenetsky, published in Applied and Environmental Biology as long ago as 1978 and uncovered by Smith.

This, says Dale Griffin of the U.S. Geological Survey in Tallahassee, Florida raises another interesting possibility. “Does the Earth shed microbial life into space, and how would this impact on our quest for extraterrestrial life? There are all kinds of interesting questions in this field, and very few people dabbling in it.”

Discovering how long they stay up is difficult. But a study after the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991 found micron-size particles — a reasonable
We are constantly being rained on by bio-detritus from around the world, from dandruff and algae to pollen and fungi.
proxy for bacteria — still falling to Earth five years later. Certainly, the dispersal is global.

Is there a permanent stratospheric ecosystem with bacteria, fungal spores, and viruses spending their entire lives in the clouds and reproducing? “I think we can talk about an atmospheric ecosystem,” says Griffin. “It is of course more fluid than what we classically call an ecosystem, but there is life, and it is plentiful.”

Other parts of the planet once thought devoid of life — such as Antarctic ice, deep oceans and deep rock formations — turn out to contain living organisms. “So,” asks Griffin, “why not the stratosphere?”

We are constantly being rained on by bio-detritus from around the world — from dandruff and algae to pollen and fungi, bacteria, and viruses. Ruprecht Jaenicke of the Institute of Atmospheric Physics at the University of Mainz in Germany analyzed air samples from remote regions. He concluded in Science in 2005 that as much as a quarter of the aerosols in the atmosphere are of biological rather than geological origin.

Some bugs bring diseases, of course. Gene Shinn of the U.S. Geological Survey in St. Petersburg, Florida first reported in 1999 that outbreaks of major coral diseases afflicting the Caribbean coincided with dust storms. One culprit was a soil fungus called Aspergillus sydowii that killed most of the region’s sea fans, a form of soft coral.

The pathogens — Shinn found 130 species in all — mostly showed up when the wind was from the east, bringing Sahara sand across the Atlantic. Roughly a billion tons of African dust settles on the Caribbean some years. The fungus that kills sea fans first arrived in 1983, when an intense drought in the Sahara sent dust clouds billowing across the Atlantic.

So desertification on one continent can kill coral reefs on another. Presumably dust storms crossing the Pacific from China’s Gobi desert will also be carrying pathogens. Griffin thinks it possible that soybean rusts from the west coast of Africa may also have crossed the Atlantic and
Air sampled in 2006 over San Antonio and Austin in Texas yielded 1,800 types of bacteria.
infected soybean plants in the Americas. There could be other undiscovered environmental consequences as well.

But many of the particles in atmospheric aerosols are bugs. Air sampled during 17 weeks in 2006 over San Antonio and Austin in Texas yielded 1,800 different types of bacteria. Many may have been locally generated, but not all, according to Gary Andersen, of the Earth Sciences Division at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, who analyzed the air.

His study was commissioned by the Department of Homeland Security as part of its research into possible bioterrorism. “We want to determine the background levels of airborne pathogens and other microbes because only very limited work has been conducted on cataloguing organisms in the air,” Andersen says. “This work underscores how much we don’t know about airborne bacterial populations, or where the bacteria come from.”

The potential for bioterrorism from airborne bacteria is certainly there. The Aspergillus fungus also causes lung disease in humans and has been implicated in asthma outbreaks. Influenza viruses have been tracked traveling by air from mainland China to Taiwan. Griffin says that a major outbreak of foot and mouth disease, the virulent cattle infection, may have reached England in 2001 in airborne dust. There was never any proof, but Griffin said at the time: “Satellite images show a dust cloud moving over the Atlantic and reaching Britain on 13 February. One week later, foot and mouth broke out in the UK. Given that the disease's incubation period is seven days, that is one heck of a coincidence.”

It looks as if bugs in the air may not just be key players in local weather and disease. Scientists are now growing interested in the possibility that bugs in the air may influence global climate.

MORE FROM YALE e360

The Effect of Clouds on Climate:
A Key Mystery for Researchers

The Effect of Clouds on Climate: A Key Mystery for Researchers
As climate scientists wrestle with the complexities of how the planet will react to rising greenhouse-gas levels, no variable is more difficult to decipher than the impact of clouds. But thanks to new satellite data and other technologies, clues are emerging that may help solve the puzzle, Michael Lemonick writes.
READ MORE
It’s not so far-fetched. We know that marine algae generate millions of tons of a gas called dimethyl sulphide that converts in the atmosphere into aerosols of sulphuric acid. These in turn form condensation nuclei that may be major causes of cloud formation in remote ocean regions. Some researchers who follow the Gaian theorist James Lovelock have argued that may be a mechanism for controlling planetary temperatures. Researchers such as the University of East Anglia’s Tim Lenton suggest that bugs in the air could be performing a similar role.

But whatever view you take of Gaia, microbes certainly make up a substantial part of the atmospheric aerosol that may be slowing global warming. And since much of the atmospheric bio-aerosol can absorb moisture and nucleate ice and water droplets, they will be making clouds and rain, too.

If, as seems likely, humans are making the atmosphere more dusty — through industrial emissions, deforestation, plowing, and desertification — and are adding large amounts of bio-aerosols into the mix, then this may be another means by which we are changing our atmosphere — and even our climate. We are, it seems, conducting our own impromptu rain dance.

POSTED ON 22 Aug 2011 IN Biodiversity Climate Oceans Science & Technology Antarctica and the Arctic 

COMMENTS


Just curious to note: wouldn't this mean that changes in farming methods, such as removing waste plant materials for biomass instead of plowing them back into soils, not only robs the soils of needed nutrients to replenish, but also change the local weather pattern around such fields?

Posted by shorebird on 22 Aug 2011


Wow! This reinforces my use of the Netty Pot! Thanks!

Posted by Gary on 22 Aug 2011


It is good to see a paradigm shift in action. Like the discovery of the importance of macro-fungi, this new understanding of atmospheric microbial life revolutionises our understanding of how the planet functions. Soon, our transdisciplinary understanding of the biosubterranean, the biosphere and the bioatmosphere will be close to reality ... it has taken a while.

Posted by Glenn Albrecht on 24 Aug 2011


Maybe Howard Hughes wasn't so crazy after all.

Posted by Dennis Stansell on 26 Aug 2011


Long time age Anaximander argued that "Everything that forms in nature incurs a debt which it must replay by dissolving so that other things may form" - for new approach and towards organic philosophy.

But, What We Are?

We have descended from bacteria!? Or, We are either their descendents or their constructions, argued by Lynn Margulis, Elisabet Sahtouris and Misroslav Radman.

If We are communities of bacteria that form a better lifestyle by joining forces with each other, than We are, as Lewis Thomas said: "Giant taxis from them to get around safely in"

Posted by KEMO on 29 Aug 2011


Fascinating. The cultural references to unusual winds, e.g. "an ill wind that blows no one good" just became a lot more interesting.

Posted by anderlan on 29 Aug 2011


And Monsanto is working hard to kill such bacteria as Pseudomonas syringae (i.e. bacterial speck on tomatoes)? Could we be (again) undoing ourselves, losing a bigger benefit to achieve a small one?

Posted by shinetiger on 11 Jul 2012


Comments have been closed on this feature.
fred pearceABOUT THE AUTHOR
Fred Pearce is a freelance author and journalist based in the UK. He serves as environmental consultant for New Scientist magazine and is the author of numerous books, including When The Rivers Run Dry and With Speed and Violence. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, Pearce has written about the environmental consequences of humankind’s addiction to chemical fertilizers and about how agribusiness threatens a critical African wildlife migration.
MORE BY THIS AUTHOR

 
 

RELATED ARTICLES


In Galápagos, An Insidious
Threat to Darwin's Finches

The birds that have come to be known as Darwin's finches have long intrigued students of evolution. But now a parasitic fly introduced to the Galápagos Islands is threatening the future of one or more of these iconic finch species.
READ MORE

On a Remote Island, Lessons
In How Ecosystems Function

Transformed by British sailors in the 19th century, Ascension Island in the South Atlantic has a unique tropical forest consisting almost entirely of alien species. Scientists say that what has happened there challenges some basic assumptions about ecosystems and evolution.
READ MORE

The Next Pandemic: Why
It Will Come from Wildlife

Experts believe the next deadly human pandemic will almost certainly be a virus that spills over from wildlife to humans. The reasons why have a lot to do with the frenetic pace with which we are destroying wild places and disrupting ecosystems.
READ MORE

A Rise in Fungal Diseases is
Taking Growing Toll on Wildlife

In an increasingly interconnected world, fungal diseases are spreading at an alarming rate and have led to deadly outbreaks in amphibian, bat, and bee populations. And in the last decade, researchers note, some of the most virulent strains have infected people.
READ MORE

As Larger Animals Decline,
Forests Feel Their Absence

With giant tortoises, elephants, and other fruit-eating animals disappearing from many of the world’s tropical woodlands, forests are suffering from the loss of a key function performed by these creatures: the dispersal of tree seeds. But a new experiment shows that introduced species may be able to fulfill this vital ecological role.
READ MORE

 

MORE IN Analysis


How Norway and Russia Made
A Cod Fishery Live and Thrive

by john waldman
The prime cod fishing grounds of North America have been depleted or wiped out by overfishing and poor management. But in Arctic waters, Norway and Russia are working cooperatively to sustain a highly productive — and profitable — northern cod fishery.
READ MORE

Can Carbon Capture Technology
Be Part of the Climate Solution?

by david biello
Some scientists and analysts are touting carbon capture and storage as a necessary tool for avoiding catastrophic climate change. But critics of the technology regard it as simply another way of perpetuating a reliance on fossil fuels.
READ MORE

Mideast Water Wars: In Iraq,
A Battle for Control of Water

by fred pearce
Conflicts over water have long haunted the Middle East. Yet in the current fighting in Iraq, the major dams on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers are seen not just as strategic targets but as powerful weapons of war.
READ MORE

Peak Coal: Why the Industry’s
Dominance May Soon Be Over

by fred pearce
The coal industry has achieved stunning growth in the last decade, largely due to increased demand in China. But big changes in China’s economy and its policies are expected to put an end to coal’s big boom.
READ MORE

Obama’s New Emission Rules:
Will They Survive Challenges?

by michael b. gerrard
The sweeping nature of President Obama’s proposed regulations limiting carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants is likely to open his initiative to serious legal challenges. To date, however, the courts have given the federal government wide latitude in regulating CO2 under the Clean Air Act.
READ MORE

On the Road to Green Energy,
Germany Detours on Dirty Coal

by fred pearce
While Germany continues to expand solar and wind power, the government’s decision to phase out nuclear energy means it must now rely heavily on the dirtiest form of coal, lignite, to generate electricity. The result is that after two decades of progress, the country’s CO2 emissions are rising.
READ MORE

Why Wave Power Has Lagged
Far Behind as Energy Source

by dave levitan
Researchers have long contended that power from ocean waves could make a major contribution as a renewable energy source. But a host of challenges, including the difficulty of designing a device to capture the energy of waves, have stymied efforts to generate electricity from the sea.
READ MORE

UN Panel Looks to Renewables
As the Key to Stabilizing Climate

by fred pearce
In its latest report, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change makes a strong case for a sharp increase in low-carbon energy production, especially solar and wind, and provides hope that this transformation can occur in time to hold off the worst impacts of global warming.
READ MORE

Will Increased Food Production
Devour Tropical Forest Lands?

by william laurance
As global population soars, efforts to boost food production will inevitably be focused on the world’s tropical regions. Can this agricultural transformation be achieved without destroying the remaining tropical forests of Africa, South America, and Asia?
READ MORE

New Satellite Boosts Research
On Global Rainfall and Climate

by nicola jones
Although it may seem simple, measuring rainfall worldwide has proven to be a difficult job for scientists. But a recently launched satellite is set to change that, providing data that could help in understanding whether global rainfall really is increasing as the planet warms.
READ MORE


e360 digest
Yale
Yale Environment 360 is
a publication of the
Yale School of Forestry
& Environmental Studies
.

SEARCH e360



Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter

CONNECT

Twitter: YaleE360
e360 on Facebook
Donate to e360
View mobile site
Bookmark
Share e360
Subscribe to our newsletter
Subscribe to our feed:
rss


ABOUT

About e360
Contact
Submission Guidelines
Reprints

E360 en Español

Universia partnership
Yale Environment 360 articles are now available in Spanish and Portuguese on Universia, the online educational network.
Visit the site.


DEPARTMENTS

Opinion
Reports
Analysis
Interviews
Forums
e360 Digest
Podcasts
Video Reports

TOPICS

Biodiversity
Business & Innovation
Climate
Energy
Forests
Oceans
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology
Sustainability
Urbanization
Water

REGIONS

Antarctica and the Arctic
Africa
Asia
Australia
Central & South America
Europe
Middle East
North America

e360 PHOTO GALLERY

“Peter
Photographer Peter Essick documents the swift changes wrought by global warming in Antarctica, Greenland, and other far-flung places.
View the gallery.

e360 MOBILE

Mobile
The latest
from Yale
Environment 360
is now available for mobile devices at e360.yale.edu/mobile.

e360 VIDEO

Warriors of Qiugang
The Warriors of Qiugang, a Yale Environment 360 video that chronicles the story of a Chinese village’s fight against a polluting chemical plant, was nominated for a 2011 Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject). Watch the video.


header image
Top Image: aerial view of Iceland. © Google & TerraMetrics.

e360 VIDEO

Colorado River Video
In a Yale Environment 360 video, photographer Pete McBride documents how increasing water demands have transformed the Colorado River, the lifeblood of the arid Southwest. Watch the video.

OF INTEREST



Yale