A world in the clouds
Researchers have discovered an entire world of complex microbe communities living in the clouds. Scientists knew cloud water contained microorganisms, but this is the first time they realized clouds provide a habitat for intricate systems of more than 30,000 different microbe species.
The microorganisms most likely originated on the ground and hitchhiked rides on tiny particles of soil, vegetation, insects, animals, and humans, as air currents swept them into the clouds. That means the microbes carry a vast amount of genetic information from thousands of organisms.
The clouds likely enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship with the microbial cities that flourish within them. The clouds provide water and nutrients for the microbes, which in turn influence the physical and chemical functions of the clouds. “Some microorganisms can physically impact clouds by acting as embryos for the formation of water droplets and ice crystals,” the researchers wrote in the study, published in PLOS One.
Eventually, the clouds transport some of the microbes back to land via raindrops and snowflakes. Although a few of the microbes might pose potential health hazards to humans, animals, and plants, the scientists believe the majority benefit earth’s ecosystems.
The discovery is fascinating, but the researchers admit they have no definite idea about what these microbial communities do in the clouds.
Intelligent design advocates should see if these cloud communities regulate climate or are in some way necessary for the habitability of our planet, Discovery Institute experts wrote on the blog Evolution News & Science Today. If so, the discovery could mean many of those potentially habitable planets out there, harboring no microbial communities in their clouds, are not so habitable, underscoring the uniqueness of Earth. And, they might find that all that genetic information floating in the clouds is there for a purpose. —J.B.