Clouds Provide AtmosphericOases for Microbes
Estimated to total 10
cells, microorganisms in clouds appear sufﬁcientto affect physicochemical processes in the global atmosphere
hen thermodynamic conditionsprove favorable in the atmo-sphere, water vapor condenseson aerosol particle surfaces,forming micrometer-sized drop-lets or ice crystals constituting clouds. Eventhough clouds gather only 0.03% of the freshwater on Earth, they are important componentsof climate, acting as ﬁlters to solar and infraredradiationenteringandleavingtheplanet.More-over, they provide a multiphasic mixture of liq-uid,solid,andgastosupportchemicalreactionsaffecting the composition of the atmosphere.When scientists began collecting air samplesathighaltitudesfrommountains,balloons,and,later, airplanes, they learned that living bacteriaand fungi are present within the atmosphere.Because condensed water can protect airbornemicrobial cells against desiccation, aerobiolo-gists consider clouds atmospheric oases. On aglobal scale, the total number of microorgan-ismsincloudsreachesabout10
.Althoughthisestimate seems low compared with the 10
microorganisms estimated to occupy lakes andriversandtothe10
microorganismsinoceans,microbial levels in clouds appear sufﬁcient toaffect physicochemical processes in the atmo-sphere. Additionally, clouds could play a majorrole in disseminating microbes over long dis-tances.
Clouds Host Metabolically Active Cells
The concentration of microorganisms incloudstypicallyrangesfrom10
cellsper milliliter. Although only a small frac-tion—typically less than 1%—of such cellscan be recovered by culture, bacteria ac-tively grow in clouds, according to BirgitSattler and colleagues of the University of InnsbruckinAustria.Becauseactivegrowthentails the uptake of nutrients, living cellspresumably change the chemistry in clouds,acting through processes that are likelydriven by sunlight and that generate freeradicals, notably hydroxyl and superoxide,OH
, respectively.Clouds are acidic, with pH ranging from3to7,andhaveconductivityvaluesrangingfrom 1 to 300
. This chemistryresults from compounds from gas and aero-sols dissolving into the aqueous phase of clouds,andvarieswithunderlyinglocalter-
Although low in number compared to the 10
microbes estimated in oceans, the 10
micro-bial cells in clouds are sufﬁciently plentiful toaffect the atmosphere.
Bacteria in clouds actively metabolize nutri-ents—for example, about 1 million tons of or-ganic carbon per year—but only about 1% of such cells can be cultured.
Even though clouds play an important role dis-persing microbes over long distances, they ap-parently do not serve as long-term microbialreservoirs.
In theory, a single ice-nucleating bacteriumwithinacloudcaninduceprecipitationandthuscause its own deposition.
Little is known about rates of emission of bac-teria from surfaces into the atmosphere, andsuch data are not easy to generate.
Pierre Amato is a staff scientist at the Institut de Chimie de Clermont- Ferrand, Clermont- Ferrand, France.
Volume 7, Number 3, 2012 / Microbe