The Surprising Importance of Stratospheric Life

Rippling like a jellyfish, a helium balloon big enough to envelop the Empire State Building lofted over the New Mexico desert. Its passengers, suspended below in a boxy white gondola, were hardy specimens: millions of cells of a remarkably resilient bacterium known as Bacillus pumilus SAFR-032. NASA scientists had first collected the strain more than a decade ago in the Mars Odyssey assembly facility, where the bacteria had survived sterilization. Before sending the pill-shaped cells into the sky last October, researchers starved them until they morphed into endospores, an armored dormant state.

Higher and higher the wee wayfarers rose: to 17,000 feet, the maximum altitude at which trees grow; to 24,000 feet, the upper limit of the highest-flying migratory bird, the bar-headed goose; to 60,000 feet, where atmospheric pressure is so low that water in bodily tissues would boil away. At last, at 100,000 feet, the balloon reached its destination. Here in the stratosphere, above the troposphere and most of Earth’s protective ozone layer, conditions are extreme: cold as an Antarctic winter, drier than the driest desert, and flooded in ultraviolet rays. “Mostly, it’s eventual death,” says Cindy Morris, a microbial ecologist at the French National Institute for Agriculture Research.

A GIANT LEAP FOR LIFE: A NASA research balloon that carried bacteria to the stratosphere in October 2015.NASA / David J. Smith

Yet scientists are

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