Wednesday, June 26, 2013

We’re Living in a Bubble of Bacteria

Most would agree that the most impressive characteristic of our planet is its unlimited ability to sustain an abundance of life. From the remote landscape of Desert Valley in California, to the extreme temperatures of deep-sea vents, life refuses to bow down to the elements and forces of our planet Earth. It seems like life takes advantage of almost every different environment and terrain that our planet has to offer. And just when we think that life cannot get much more adaptable, a new study has found an abundance of bacteria living 10 km (≈6.2 mi) up in our atmosphere.

NASA researchers carried out the study by filtering the air that passes through a plane engine. When the team examined the samples under a microscope, much to their surprise, 20% of what they had suspected to be dust in the atmosphere was live bacteria. The significance of this bacteria is so far unknown, however microbiologists and ecologists suspect that the bacteria may be partially responsible for transferring of some diseases and influencing weather patterns. Ann Womack, a microbial ecologist at the University of Oregon, says that with proper engineering, we could even use the bacteria to help fight climate change by influencing them to breakdown greenhouse gasses into less harmful gasses.

If nothing else, the existence of live bacteria 10 km up in the atmosphere begs the question; what else is up there? Or even, what else lies beyond our atmosphere. At 10 km up, oxygen is almost nonexistent, temperatures are well below freezing, and UV radiation is constantly bombarding the atmosphere so life seems nearly impossible. Yet once again, life found a way.

Surely this study will inspire more research in the near future but until then, we are left wondering why’s, how’s, and what ifs. And when’s. When will the first headline come out to say, “Life found beyond Earth’s atmosphere,” will that day ever come? One thing is for sure; our planet’s atmosphere just got a whole lot more interesting.

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