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Things Living in the Upper Atmosphere

Five years ago, Robert Krulwich of NPR told us about the billions of bugs that lived high above us in the atmosphere. Now there’s an even newer, stranger ecosystem found much higher: bacteria, fungi, and viruses that are swept up to the edge of outer space and orbit the earth miles above our heads. They survive up there, often for long periods of time, and many of them come back to earth from “the high zone” still alive.

Some bacteria have been in this high zone so regularly or for so long that they’ve adapted to life in the sky. Some species develop pigments that mimic sunscreen; some, says the New York Times, feed only on cloud water; and some can reproduce within clouds.

Scientists call this new family of creatures-in-the-sky “high life,” and it is a biological zone with its own rules. Up there is not like down here.

The conditions are so extreme (cold, lack of oxygen, solar radiation, etc.) that scientists are having to rethink how microbes live and die, and maybe come back to life. Which upends what we think we know about life and death. Read about these high zone microbes and their high life, such as it is, at Phenomena.  

(Image credit: Robert Krulwich)

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