Earth's upper atmosphere—below freezing, nearly without oxygen, flooded by UV radiation—is no place to live. But last winter, scientists from the Georgia Institute of Technology discovered that billions of bacteria actually thrive up there. Expecting only a smattering of microorganisms, the researchers flew six miles above Earth's surface in a NASA jet plane. There, they pumped outside air through a filter to collect particles. Back on the ground, they tallied the organisms, and the count was staggering: 20 percent of what they had assumed to be just dust or other particles was alive. Earth, it seems, is surrounded by a bubble of bacteria.
Scientists don't yet know what the bacteria are doing up there, but they may be essential to how the atmosphere functions, says Kostas Konstantinidis, an environmental microbiologist on the Georgia Tech team. For example, they could be responsible for recycling nutrients in the atmosphere, like they do on Earth. And similar to other particles, they could influence weather patterns by helping clouds form. However, they also may be transmitting diseases from one side of the globe to the other. The researchers found E. coli in their samples (which they think hurricanes lifted from cities), and they plan to investigate whether plagues are raining down on us. If we can find out more about the role of bacteria in the atmosphere, says Ann Womack, a microbial ecologist at the University of Oregon, scientists could even fight climate change by engineering the bacteria to break down greenhouse gases into other, less harmful compounds.
This article originally appeared in the July 2013 issue of Popular Science. See the rest of the magazine here.
Who would have thought we have bacteria and other microscopic organisms living in high elevation atmosphere!? Truly interesting, and most likely will have a major impact on how we understand weather and climate patterns, including atmospheric gas ratios.
I've been involved in pictures like that; the journalist says ok look like you're doing science. So we stand around feeling like idiots poring test tubes and tightening already tight screws on our experiment. Now those sorts of photos bug me.
Can we find out the list of bateria that was found during these studies? I would be interested in understanding, which ones might get into airline air recirculation during flight.
There's a great potential for them to make an impact on the CO2 concentration up there. Heck, they can even be genetically modified to increase its rate of metabolism and respiration.
The theory of microorganisms living in the upper atmosphere and in orbit has already been proposed in 2006 in the "extraterrestrial energyzoa hypothesis" by Daniel Tarr.
The ETZH is an alternative hypothesis of the extraterrestrial hypothesis, stating that some of the UFO phenomena is best explained as being some kind of biological lifeforms and NOT creatures from other planets occupying physical spacecraft visiting Earth.
Serch for the term "energyzoa"...
Actually, atmospheric microorganism have been studied since 1880's when the early experiments were performed by people in hot air balloons... several other studies were documented in the 1930's also... not an expert in the topic but when discussing the article with other more experienced colleagues, they informed me... have a few references on the 1930's documents for those interested.