It’s a harsh world up in the clouds, but hailstones can show us samples of the different kinds of life forms able to survive there.
Researchers from Aarhas University, Denmark, collected 42 hailstones that fell during a storm in Slovenia. After cleaning the surfaces of the ice lumps, the team analyzed the microbes and chemicals inside in the first study of its kind.
The scientists discovered several types of bacteria that are usually found on plants, along with nearly 3,000 different chemical compounds that are mostly found in soil. However, they didn’t find many soil microbes or plant chemicals.
In particular, three species of bacteria were discovered in the majority of the hailstones, and could be indicative of the type of life that occurs in clouds.
The scientists suggested that the bacteria from plants might be better at surviving the conditions high in the atmosphere than soil bacteria.
“We conclude that storm clouds are among the most extreme habitats on Earth, where microbial life exists,” the researchers wrote in their paper.
So what do the bacteria eat in the sky? Some of the chemicals in the clouds are trace amounts of organic compounds, enough for the microbes to use for food.
“When we started these analyses, we were hoping to arrive at a merely descriptive characterization of the bacterial community in an unexplored habitat,” study co-author Ulrich Gosewinkel Karlson said in a press release.
“But what we found was indirect evidence for life processes in the atmosphere, such as bacterial selection and growth.”
The paper was published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE on Jan. 23.
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