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'Rain-making' bacteria found around the world : Nature News

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Published online 28 February 2008 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2008.632


News

'Rain-making' bacteria found


around the world
Some microbes are frequent flyers in clouds.
Quirin Schiermeier

Rain brings microbes back to


Earth along with
water.Punchstock
The same bacteria that cause frost damage on plants can help clouds to produce
rain and snow. Studies on freshly fallen snow suggest that bio-precipitation might
be much more common than was suspected.
Before a cloud can produce rain or snow, rain drops or ice particles must form.
This requires the presence of aerosols: tiny particles that serve as the nuclei for
condensation. Most such particles are of mineral origin, but airborne microbes
bacteria, fungi or tiny algae can do the job just as well. Unlike mineral aerosols,
living organisms can catalyse ice formation even at temperatures close to 0 C.
The effect of the biological ice nucleators on precipitation has been a mystery, not
least because no one has yet been able to detect them in clouds.

Cloud counters

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Now a team, led by Brent Christner, a microbiologist at Louisiana State University


in Baton Rouge, has managed to catalogue these rain-making microbes by looking
at fresh snow collected at various mid- and high-latitude locations in North
America, Europe and Antarctica.
They filtered the snow samples to remove particles, put those particles into
containers of pure water, and slowly lowered the temperature, watching closely to
see when the water froze. The higher the freezing temperature of any given
sample, the greater the number of nuclei and the more likely they are to be
biological in nature. To tease apart these two effects, the team treated the water
samples with heat or chemicals to kill any bacteria inside, and again checked the
freezing temperatures of the samples.
In this way they found between 4 and 120 ice nucleators per litre of melted snow.
Some 69100% of these particles were probably biological. The results are
published in Science today1.
The researchers were surprised to find rain-making bacteria in all samples; the
snow from Antarctica had fewer than that from France and Montana, but it still
had some. The results add evidence to the idea that microbes can safely travel long
distances in clouds, and suggest that substantial biology-driven precipitation
occurs everywhere on Earth.
"It is a wake-up call reminding us that some of the most active catalysts in clouds
are being widely ignored, says Christner. "Biological particles do seem to play a
very important part in generating snowfall and rain, especially at relatively warm
cloud temperatures.

Microbe water cycle


Most rain-making bacteria make their living as pathogens, using their ability to
promote freezing at relatively warm temperatures to break the cell walls of the
plants that they feed on. Some scientists note that this freezing ability also means
that the bacteria get out of clouds and back to Earth more quickly, which is to the
microbes' advantage.
It is quite plausible that the organisms might be using their ice-nucleating ability
to get out of the atmosphere, says Tim Lenton, an Earth-system scientist at the
University of East Anglia, UK.
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'Rain-making' bacteria found around the world : Nature News

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This idea that bacteria are at an advantage if they can travel distances in clouds
and then return to Earth which Lenton developed ten years ago with the late Bill
Hamilton2, features in the Gaia hypothesis. The Gaia theory holds that that living
and non-living parts of the Earth are a complex interacting system, in which living
things have a regulatory effect that promotes life overall.
But humans also have a big effect on these regulatory processes. Changes in landuse, forestry and agriculture, such as expanding monoculture, changes the
composition of microbes in the atmosphere. As biological components seem to
have a large role in how rain forms, such changes may affect rainfall and climate in
many places on Earth.
It is about time for atmospheric and climate scientists to start thinking about the
implications, says Christner.

References
1. Christner, B. et al.Science 319, 1214 (2008). | Article |
2. Hamilton, W. D. & Lenton, T. M. Ethol. Ecol. Evol. 10, 1-16
(1998). | ISI |

Comments
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#1633
Cloud processes are dominated by salt particles, they act as cloud nuclei, but
you will not find them in the snow as separate particles, for they get in
solution in cloud droplets before these droplets freeze to ice crystals. The

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'Rain-making' bacteria found around the world : Nature News

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more salt particles were involved in cloud formation, the higher the freezing
point will be in the water, but this will also depend on the type of rain clouds.
I do not expect very significant differences if - from the same type of cloud more salt nuclei were involved. The role of mineral dust is minimal, only
locally (relatively to world scale) it can play a role sometimes. The role of
bacteria is neglectable. It is even doubtful if they were ever in the cloud: they
may have been trapped by falling snow, so-called scavenging of bigger
particles and bacteria are relatively big compared to cloud condensation
nuclei. Important is the number of particles with a diameter of around 100 to
200 nanometer, these particles consists of salt particles: ammonium sulphate
and ammonium nitrate and sea salt. One litre snow is formed by many many
snow crystals each containing a condensation nucleus. If you divide one litre
water from melted snow by the number of melted snow crystals that formed
this liter, you will find about 5* 10^9 crystals and as much condensation
nuclei. This means that between 4 and 120 bacteria cannot play a significant
role, even if they really were in the clouds.
Report this comment
2008-02-29 03:23:43 PM
Posted by: Gerard Kos
#1637
I find the entire issue of the ubiquitous presence of bacteria in the world
around us fascinating. Many areas that were thought to be bereft of life, such
as the deep oceans and deep rock formations have revealed living organisms,
as has the antarctic ice. Although in this case, this is not the first time that
bacteria have been identified as a source of nucleation for precipitation.
Franc & DeMott provided experimental evidence of this and proposed a
similar hypothesis back in 1998. Ref: Franc, G.D., and P.J. DeMott, 1998:
Cloud Activation Characteristics of Airborne Erwinia carotovora Cells. J.
Appl. Meteor., 37, 12931300. http://ams.allenpress.com/perlserv/?
SESSID=edc638cfc13aabcd6d5336f3a60b7d4a&request=res-loc&uri=urn%
3Aap%3Apdf%3Adoi%3A10.1175%2F1520-0450%281998%29037%3C1293%
3ACACOAE%3E2.0.CO%3B2
Report this comment
2008-02-29 11:51:53 PM
Posted by: Darryl Luscombe
#1640
Thoughts about the role of micro-organisms in the formation of atmospheric
ice date back to the meteorologist Soulange (1957: Ann. Geophys. 13: 103134) who observed bacterial-like particles in the center of ice crystals. The
discovery of the ice nucleation activity of micro-organisms about 20 years
later (1974: Maki et al, Applied Microbiol. 28:456-459; 1976: Arny et al
Nature 262:282-284 ) got us thinking again about this idea in more specific
terms, especially as the first-identified ice nucleation active micro-organism
was the ubiquitous plant epiphyte and pathogen Pseudomonas syringae. In
the early 1980's David Sands suspected air-borne sources of inoculum of this
pathogen as the origin of a bacterial blight of wheat in fields in Montana. He

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was aware of the considerable upward fluxes of this bacterium into the
atmosphere being measured by other research groups (1982: Lindemann et
al. Appl. Environ. Microbiol. 44:1059-1063). The samples he collected in
clouds at about 2 km altitude confirmed the presence of ice nucleating strains
of this bacterium and led him to propose a "bioprecipitation" cycle whereby
P. syringae rides air currents and rainfall to circulate between plant surfaces
and clouds, and participates in the formation of rain to assure the cycle
(1982: Sands et al J. Hungarian Meteorol. Serv. 86:148-152). The cycle
proposed by Franc and DeMott, as described in the comment of Darryl
Luscombe on 29 Feb, also offered hypotheses of a similar cycle for another
plant pathogen. In this latter case the bacterium is not ice nucleation active
but may contribute to cloud formation by aiding the condensation of water
rather than its freezing. Although published in 1998, the research by Franc
was part of his PhD thesis work from the late 1980's. At the time of Sands'
and Franc's work, interest in microbial ice nucleation was focused intensively
on processes involved in frost damage to plants, on the molecular
characterization of the ice nucleating protein and associated gene, and on
industrial and biotech applications of this protein. Today there is a very new
and fresh perspective on the possible role that micro-organisms can play in
all sorts of environmental processes. This is bolstered by our ability to trace
them and reveal their in situ activities via new and very refined technologies.
This is also bolstered by our understanding that micro-organisms are
everywhere yes even in clouds. The pioneering work of Sattler et al
(2001: Geophys. Res. Lett. 28:239-242), Bauer et al (2003: J. Geophys. Res.
108:AAC2/1-AAC2/5) and Amato et al (2007: FEMS Microbiol. Ecol. 59:242254), for example, on the abundance and possible metabolic activities of
micro-organisms in clouds leaves no doubt that clouds are not sterile
having as many as 10e5 microbial cells/mL of water. P. syringae was among
the bacteria isolated from clouds by Amato and colleagues. The temperatures
at which bacteria can be active as ice nuclei are the warmest of all the
naturally-occurring ice nuclei in the atmosphere (up to ca. -2C). This leads
to questions about their possible activity when other ice nucleators
although more abundant might be less efficient. Studies of the physics of
ice formation in clouds have, for the most part, ignored the role of biological
particles. This is due in part to the fact that current technologies to measure
ice nucleation active particles in the atmosphere, prior to the publication of
our results, could not distinguish biological particles per se. Theoretical
considerations of the possible role of biological ice nucleators in precipitation
might rule out their importance. But their role has not been ruled out by
experimental evidence. It might turn out that biological ice nucleators have
no significant impact on quantities of precipitation but that they might
simply exploit freezing processes in the atmosphere to assure the survival of
some cells. Technologies are now available to pursue these questions. We
have recently called for renewed interest in the role of micro-organisms in
rainfall, in the full spectrum of roles of biological particles in atmospheric
processes, and in further consideration of the atmosphere as a microbial
habitat. This call is fully detailed in: Morris et al (2008: BIogeosciences
Discuss. 5:191-212), Deguillaume et al (2008 Biogeosciences Discuss.
5:841870) and Moehler et al (2007: Biogeosciences 4:1059-1071).

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'Rain-making' bacteria found around the world : Nature News

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& Report this comment


& 20 0 8 -0 3-0 1 0 ' :48:5 5 ) *
& Posted b+ : , ind+ * orris
- #1648
. e were surprised to read in the 28 / ebruar+ 20 0 8 naturenews section the
statem ent 0 1 2 3 he effect of biological 0 1 4 ice nucleators0 1 5 on precipitation
has been a m + ster+ 6 not least because no one has + et been able to detect them
in clouds.0 1  ) ctuall+ 6 biological ice nucleators as well as their im pact on
atm ospheric phenom ena including cloud-to-ground lightning and sprites6
ha7 e been discussed b+ us following identification of biological ice nucleators6
including bacteria6 spores and fungi in giant hailstones with diam eters
reaching 3.5 cm . 8 ailstones of that si9 e are form ed in supercell
cum ulonim bus clouds6 in the upper le7 el of the cloud at the top of the an7 il
near the tropopause6 at 8-12 km . 3 herefore the probabilit+ is high that the
bioaerosols contained in the h+ drom eteors were collected m ostl+ in the upper
region of the cloud : 1; . 3 his report m ust ha7 e escaped the author0 1 5 s
notice. 3 he e< pectation that bioaerosols are good ice nucleators can be easil+
= ustified: biological debris6 spores6 fungi and bacteria are norm all+
h+ drophilic6 ha7 e a rough surface structure and are insolubilit+ in water.
Presum abl+ 6 their capabilit+ to bind water 7 apour is superior to h+ drophobic
particles of the sam e si9 e. > 7 en in am bient conditions m an+ surfaces are
m asked with a cr+ stalline6 nanoscopic water la+ er : 2; . ? uch structures are
e< pected to further encourage ice cr+ stal form ation. 3 herefore the role of
bioaerosols as ice nucleators could be 7 er+ significant. ) ndrei P. ? om m er and
@ an A hu6 B nstitute of * icro and Nanom aterials6 C ni7 ersit+ of C lm 6 8 ' 0 8 1
C lm 6 D erm an+ References: 1. ? om m er6 ) . P. > lectrification 7 s , r+ stalli9 ation:
Principles to * onitor Nanoaerosols in , louds , r+ st. D rowth @ es. 66 74' -75 4
: 20 0 6; . 2. ? om m er6 ) . P.6 , aron6 ) . E / echt6 8 . F . 3 uning Nanoscopic . ater
G a+ ers on 8 + drophobic and 8 + drophilic ? urfaces with G aser G ight.
G angm uir6 246 635 -636 : 20 0 8 ; .
& Report this comment
& 20 0 8 -0 3-0 3 0 5 :5 4:0 5 ) *
& Posted b+ : andrei som m er
- #1796
) ctuall+ 6 , hristner et al. in their bre7 ia paper6 H C biI uit+ of J iological B ce
Nucleators in ? nowfallH : ? cience6 2' / ebruar+ 20 0 86 p. 1214; 6 ha7 e clearl+
o7 erlooked the sem inal work of ) .D . G ochhead in this research area. . hile
, hristner et al. ha7 e m ade e7 ident the role of bacteria in the form ation of
snow6 howe7 er6 it was G ochhead who showed for the first tim e wa+ back in
1' 38 : 1; that a fresh batch of snow6 which fell o7 er K ttawa district6 contained
J acillus m egatherium as the m ost abundant species6 along with J . 7 ulgatus6
J . m esentericus6 J . m + coides6 J . sim ple< 6 J . cereus and J acillus sp. ? incerel+
+ ours6 @ r. C pinder / otadar Research ? cientist J asic ? ciences @ i7 ision New
L ork C ni7 ersit+ 345 > ast 24th6 ? treet New L ork6 NL 10 0 10 Phone: 212-' ' 8' 5 78 > -m ail: uf4M n+ u.edu References 1; ) .D . G ochhead6 ? cience 8 7: 48 7
: 1' 38; .

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& Report this comment


& 20 0 8 -0 3-11 0 3:38 :0 6 P*
& Posted b+ : C pinder / otadar

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