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Earth Science

Microbes Survive, and Maybe Thrive, High In the Atmosphere 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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Microbes Survive, and Maybe Thrive, High In the Atmosphere

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  • by Frosty Piss ( 770223 ) * on Monday January 28, 2013 @07:28PM (#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".

    • by Anonymous Coward

      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.

  • by TWX ( 665546 ) on Monday January 28, 2013 @07:33PM (#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.
    • by CrimsonAvenger ( 580665 ) on Monday January 28, 2013 @07:58PM (#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.

    • by Longjmp ( 632577 )

      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 M

  • by stenvar ( 2789879 ) on Monday January 28, 2013 @07:42PM (#42721233)

    on second thought, I don't actually.

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • These findings were confirmed long ago by Scoop 7 [wikipedia.org] .
  • by wierd_w ( 1375923 ) on Monday January 28, 2013 @08:19PM (#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.

  • by gratuitous_arp ( 1650741 ) on Monday January 28, 2013 @08:31PM (#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]

    • 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 atmosphe

    • by AK Marc ( 707885 )
      At least we now have "proof" that life on a gas giant isn't a physical impossibility.
    • 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.

  • 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?

  • 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.

    • by mbone ( 558574 )

      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.

  • 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.

  • 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...)

I've finally learned what "upward compatible" means. It means we get to keep all our old mistakes. -- Dennie van Tassel