Thursday, April 25, 2013


It looks like microorganisms are going to play an increasing role in the lives of humans with whom they have close association. The story of microbiome in the human body is now well known and over 1000 species of microbes cohabiting within and outside human body have a profound influence on the quality of health of the people. Microbes also are involved in production of many chemical substances and food materials of immense value complimenting human effort to ensure food security. Recent discovery that microbes can convert 30% of all plant materials on this planet into consumable forms of food is indeed reassuring. Equally true is the fact that there are many destructive bugs which can cause serious health problems including fatal conditions. While man has learned to live with these diverse microorganisms living near him , the new startling discovery that these tiny creatures can also live in highly hostile conditions that prevail in thin and rarefied air thousands of feet above the earth raises many questions regarding their role on climate moderation and well being of humans. Here is a take on this new revelations.       

"To find out, Nenes had some of his students hitch a ride on a NASA airplane that was on a mission to study hurricanes. They made multiple flights and were able to collect air samples from about 30,000 feet over both land and sea. The samples turned out to contain some fungi — and a lot of bacteria. "And this was a big surprise because we didn't really expect to see that many bacteria up there," Nenes says.It's not exactly a friendly place. It's cold, it's dry, and there's a lot of damaging UV light. But Nenes says the bacteria seemed to be able to handle it. "They were alive," Nenes says. "More than 60 percent of them were actually alive, and they were in an active state that that you could say they should be metabolizing and eating things that are up there." Back on the ground, other members of the research team used genetic techniques to identify the bacteria. One of them was Georgia Tech microbiologist Kostas Konstantinidis. "We were able to see at least close to 100 different species, of which about 20 were in most samples," Konstantinidis says. Some of those 100 species were from the ocean. Others came from the soil and from fresh water".

It will be interesting to know further about their nature and impact on humans on earth and whether some of the pathogens identified would be more virulent than their earth bound counterparts? Will the current antibiotic therapy be effective against them? With the frequency of high altitude flights, including outer space flights, increasing will there be more transfer of them to ground level mingling with the existing cocktail of microbes? What will be the consequences? A more detailed and intensive study including genetic mapping of these high altitude microorganisms only can find answers to these vexing questions. An international study on these issues is called for with minimum delay 


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