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Ice, Ice, Bacteria (Not Too Cold)

Bacterial proteins could alter precipitation patterns and climate-change models.

Proteins can help grow teeth and bones in the body, crops in the ground, and even ice in the atmosphere. Some proteins have an uncanny knack for kick starting ice formation at unusual temperatures, and they have piqued the interest of people working in climate, agriculture and even mountain ski resorts where snow is created on demand. Now, new research shows how bacterial proteins interact with water molecules to form ice.

Bioengineer Tobias Weidner, leader of the surface protein group at the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research in Mainz, Germany, who authored the new research, happened to hear a talk by a climate scientist about bacteria proteins in the sky that can control precipitation patterns. He was intrigued – and found that no one had ever looked at these substances at a microscopic level.

Weidner and his colleagues worked with Pseudomonas syringae, a common bacterium that attacks plants by growing ice crystals, also known as frost, and allowing plants to catch infections – even when temperatures are above freezing.

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