Alexandria, VA – With cold temperatures, low humidity and high levels of ultraviolet radiation, conditions 10 kilometers above Earth's surface may seem inhospitable. But, next time you're flying consider this: The air outside your airplane window may be filled with microscopic life that affects everything from weather and climate to the distribution of pathogens around the planet.
While studying hurricanes during NASA-sponsored research flights, scientists stumbled upon populations of airborne bacteria. Microscopic analyses revealed that each cubic meter of air collected contained an average of about 150,000 cells – mostly bacteria with a few fungal cells mixed in. The team found that the bacterial assemblage in each sample tended to reflect the recent history of the air mass from which it was collected. For instance, if the hurricane was predominantly over the ocean, then the sample contained mostly oceanic bacteria. However, the exact mechanics of how the bacteria are transported to the upper atmosphere remain unclear.
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