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Aerial Plankton: Good, Bad, Ugly, or Indifferent?
Jul 23 2013 8:37AM Posted by David Ludwig, Ph.D.
 

Ecologists make their way into some obscure corners of the biosphere. Examples? How about the study of Mural Vegetation, in this case “Mural” meaning “wall”? There is indeed an active, if small, community of researchers who study the ecosystems of vertical surfaces, most (but not all) of human origin. Another is fossil cave dung. Much has been learned by deconstructing and reconstructing the ecology of fossilized ground sloth dung, and the debris piles left by rodents in certain caves, mostly in South America but also in Africa. And human commensal invertebrates have a technical following. Did you know that there is at least one species of nematode found only in beer mats in German bars? And that about 75% of human beings are colonized by “eyelash mites”, tiny arthropods that live at hair follicles and apparently survive by absorbing nutrients from the semi-liquid goo generated at the root of the hair.

But we could do this for page after page. One seemingly obscure aspect of the biosphere that has been favored for study sporadically over the decades is aerial plankton. I turns out that the atmosphere is populated by an amazing abundance and diversity of microscopic life. Recently, Popular Science provided a brief report on aerial plankton surveys conducted by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, GA, USA (fair disclosure: my youngest son is a student at Georgia Tech). Basically, by filtering air while flying at 6 miles altitude, investigators determined that about 20% of the total particles were not only biological in origin, they are living cells! The atmosphere is not purely a physical and chemical phenomenon. It is biologically active, and linked in potentially important ways to other components of the biosphere. For example, among the cells identified, E. coli bacteria are present. Likely swirled into the atmosphere by hurricane cells over cities, it might well be the case that diseases are spread over vast distances by aerial plankton. 

Since any atmospheric particles are associated with weather, clearly bacterial aerial plankton play a role—unquantified and uncharacterized to date—in determining weather conditions. It is possible that there is a functional nutrient cycling in situ, affecting the chemical composition of precipitation and therefore its quality and quantity. 

Without much more investigation (particularly hypothesis generation and testing), it is impossible to say whether or not aerial plankton is more than an inert oddity. But at the biomass and diversity levels reported by the Georgia Tech researchers, this seems unlikely. It appears to me that there is much potential for important processes, unknown to date, to be occurring at high atmospheric altitudes. 

I encourage you all to formulate some working and testable hypotheses next time you find yourself cruising at high speed and high altitude on your way to a technical colloquium, project meeting, vacation and R&R, whatever. This is one of the few remaining scientific endeavors to which meaningful contributions can be made simply by thinking. Take advantage of it when you can!

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