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Every cloud has a silver lining, and if atmospheric chemist Athanasios Nenes is correct, it has tons of bacteria as well. When Nenes collected air samples from about 30,000 feet over land and sea, he found that the air high above us is teeming with microorganisms:
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.
There were even some E. coli. But Konstantinidis says he's not sure yet whether it's a type that makes people sick. The sample is still being analyzed. "My feeling is it will also include pathogens," he says, "but we don't have direct evidence about that yet."
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