Hailstones reveal life in a storm cloud


Jan. 23, 2013 — It isn’t life on Mars, but researchers have found a rich diversity of microbial life and chemicals in the ephemeral habitat of a storm cloud, according to a study published January 23 in the open access journal PLOS ONE by Tina Šantl Temkiv and colleagues from Aarhus University, Denmark.

The researchers analyzed hailstones recovered after a storm in May 2009 and found that they carried several species of bacteria typically found on plants and almost 3000 different compounds usually found in soil. However, the hailstones had very few soil-associated bacteria or chemicals that would usually occur in plants. Three of the bacterial species discovered were found in most of the hailstones studied, and may represent ‘typical’ cloud inhabitants, the study reports.

According to the authors, this selective enrichment of certain plant bacteria and soil chemicals in the hailstones reveals how specific processes during the lifetime of a cloud may impact certain bacteria more than others. They suggest that these processes could affect the long-distance transport and geographical distribution of microbes on Earth.

“When we started these analyses, we were hoping to arrive at a merely descriptive characterization of the bacterial community in an unexplored habitat. But what we found was indirect evidence for life processes in the atmosphere, such as bacterial selection and growth,” says Ulrich Gosewinkel Karlson, leader of the aeromicrobiology research group at Aarhus University.

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Do Bacteria Play Role in Weather Events?

Hail. (Credit: © RRF / Fotolia) – Do Bacteria Play Role in Weather Events? High Concentration of Bacteria in Center of Hailstones, Researchers Report

Researchers have discovered a high concentration of bacteria in the center of hailstones, suggesting that airborne microorganisms may be responsible for that and other weather events.

They reported their findings May 24, 2011 at the 111th General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology in New Orleans.

“Bacteria have been found within the embryo, the first part of a hailstone to develop. The embryo is a snapshot of what was involved with the event that initiated growth of the hailstone,” says Alexander Michaud of Montana State University in Bozeman, who presented the research.

Michaud and his colleagues analyzed hailstones over 5 centimeters in diameter that were collected on the University campus after a storm in June 2010. The large hailstones were seperated into 4 layers and the meltwater from each layer was analyzed. The number of culturable bacteria was found to be highest in the inner cores of the hailstone.

“In order for precipitation to occur, a nucleating particle must be present to allow for aggregation of water molecules,” says Michaud. “There is growing evidence that these nuclei can be bacteria or other biological particles.”

Michaud’s research is part of a growing field of study focusing on bioprecipitation, a concept where bacteria may initiate rainfall and other forms of precipitation including snow and hail. The formation of ice in clouds, which is necessary for snow and most rainfall events, requires ice nuclei (IN), particles that the ice crystals can grow around.

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