Thirty-three thousand feet above the Earth is a harsh, desolate environment. At that point there’s almost no oxygen in the atmosphere, temperatures are below freezing, and there’s a ton of radiation, just to make the living conditions a little less hospitable. But even in these especially severe surroundings, there is life. Scientists from the Georgia Institute of Technology have discovered a cloud of billions of bacteria living more than six miles above the surface of the Earth.
Researchers flying a NASA jet gathered samples by sifting air through a filter and collecting particles. The team expected to find only a small number of microorganisms at that altitude, but when they began examining their samples, they made a surprising discovery. More than 20 percent of what they collected was actually alive.
The Georgia Tech team doesn’t know why the bacteria are up there, or what they’re doing, but they have some ideas. They may play an important role in the function of the atmosphere. Perhaps they help recycle nutrients, much like they do on the ground. It’s also possible the bacteria could impact weather patterns and help clouds form. One of the microorganisms the team found was E. coli, which they theorize was lifted into the atmosphere when hurricanes hit cities. So there’s also potential there could be plagues raining down on us from above. Sounds very biblical.
Ann Womack, a University of Oregon microbial ecologist, posits that if we could find out exactly what function these bacteria play, it could even help fight global climate change. It could be possible for scientists to engineer the bacteria to break down harmful greenhouse gases into more benign substances.