Life on Earth’s Ceiling
An SEM of an atmospheric pollen grain (left), and David Smith in front of the Mt. Bachelor Observatory, where atmospheric samples are collected. Credit: NASA Kennedy Space Center / Andrew C. Schuerger
Biologists once thought that the stratosphere of Earth was uninhabitable due to its low pressure, high radiation, and absence of water and nutrients. However, recent studies have confirmed that microbes survive in this atmospheric region.
“Life surviving at high altitudes challenges our notion of the biosphere boundary,” says David Smith of the University of Washington in Seattle.
With funding from the NASA Astrobiology Institute, Smith and his colleagues are studying where these microorganisms come from, where they are going and what their evolutionary trajectory has been. The research should provide insights into a class of hardy microorganisms that can survive at the fringes of what we Earthlings consider habitable, both here and elsewhere.
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