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Tropospheric Microbes Are Suprisingly Diverse Yet Stable

Airborne microbial diversity is much greater than expected, albeit spare compared to that in the ocean and in the soil, according graduate student Robert M. Bowers, his advisor Noah Fierer, and their collaborators at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and elsewhere, who collected their data at Storm Peak lab in northwestern Colorado at an elevation of 3,200 meters. Moreover, the species of bacteria that they observe in the troposphere remain relatively stable over time, despite changing conditions. Further, ice nucleation-a precursor to precipitation-does not correlate with the local abundance of known ice-nucleating microbes. Details appear in the August Applied and Environmental Microbiology (75:5121- 5130).

Roughly 100 species of bacteria and equivalent numbers of fungal species were found in each of nine air samples from Storm Peak-far fewer than in urban or rural air samples, and fewer than in one sample of snow from there, which contained 800 species, Bowers says. Airborne microbial population density values range from 9.6 x 105 to 6.6 x 106 cells per m3, with roughly equivalent numbers of bacteria and fungi. "These airborne microbes are likely to play some role in cloud formation, and can therefore be said to play a role in the global radiation budget," he says.

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