Investigating life in the clouds

As children, we are taught about the beautiful simplicity of the water cycle. Precipitation cascades from the sky, falls onto plants and ponds and people, then evaporates back into the atmosphere and eventually descends back to Earth.

But what if it wasn’t that simple? What if instead of just modest H2O, there were also millions of microbes in the rain? What if these microbes then went back up into the atmosphere and became parts of clouds again? What if these bacteria and fungi and other tiny organisms actually contributed to the formation of rain itself?

David Schmale's drones

David Schmale, associate professor of plant pathology, physiology, and weed science, and Kostya Chubinskiy, research associate, with a small hand-launched unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) designed to collect microorganisms from the atmosphere.

Turns out, there is plenty of evidence for this.

“Clouds are actually teeming with microbial life,” said David Schmale III, an associate professor in the Department of Plant Pathology, Physiology, and Weed Science. “But little is known about microbes in the rain.”

Until now.

Schmale and Boris Vinatzer, an associate professor and geneticist in the same department, are part of an international team leading a first-ever study to examine and run DNA analyses on millions of microbes that hit the Earth with each passing raindrop.

Many of the bacteria will be characterized in detail by sequencing their genomes and testing them for their ability to catalyze the formation of ice. This could lead to more accurate weather forecasting and could potentially help with cloud seeding — when clouds are injected with a material that encourages rain.

The work is being sponsored by a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation.
Vinatzer and Schmale are collecting samples of rain in buckets at Virginia Tech’s Kentland Farm. Because rain serves as an excellent atmospheric scrubber, Schmale will also gather precipitation from clouds using unmanned systems — drones — to collect untainted samples for testing.

In the coming years, samples will also be collected in Louisiana, Idaho, Montana, and France in order to glean a snapshot of microbial life in rain around the world. The team will also examine microbial diversity in glacial ice core samples to see if the atmospheric microbial makeup has changed since the 1700s.

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