Storm Clouds Harbor Rich Microbial Life, Pioneering Study Reveals

Dr Tina Šantl Temkiv and colleagues from Aarhus University, Denmark, have completed the first ever inventory of microbes and soil chemicals in a storm cloud.

This image shows a storm cloud building up near Oklahoma City (Jeff Duda / meteor.iastate.edu)

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 3,000 different compounds usually found in soil. The findings appear in the open access journal PLoS-ONE.

However, the hailstones had very few soil-associated bacteria or chemicals that would usually occur in plants. Three of the bacterial species discovered (γ-Proteobacteria, Sphingobacteriales and Methylobacterium) were found in most of the hailstones studied, and may represent ‘typical’ cloud inhabitants.

According to the scientists, 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,” said senior author Dr Ulrich Karlson of Aarhus University.

“But what we found was indirect evidence for life processes in the atmosphere, such as bacterial selection and growth.”

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Bibliographic information: Santl-Temkiv T et al. 2013. Hailstones: A Window into the Microbial and Chemical Inventory of a Storm Cloud. PLoS ONE 8(1): e53550; doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0053550