Science World

Scientists Find Evidence of Possible Lost Continent

A beach on Mauritius.  Researchers say traces of an ancient mineral found in the beach sand of this island nation may led to the discovery of a long lost micro-continent.  (Photo: Contrarianmind via Wikimedia Commons)

A beach on Mauritius. Researchers say traces of an ancient mineral found on the island could have come from  a long-lost micro-continent. (Photo: Contrarianmind via Wikimedia Commons)

Scientists believe they’ve uncovered evidence of a long-lost continent in sand found on an island off the east coast of Africa.

The possible proof was found in traces of an ancient mineral believed to be between 660 million and 1.97 billion years, gathered from the beaches of Mauritius. It could provide evidence of a long lost micro-continent in the Indian Ocean.

The prehistoric mineral, zircon, is usually associated with much older landmasses yet Mauritius, in geological terms, is fairly young.  The island nation was born between eight and 10 million years ago after bursting from the sea floor, volcanic activity propelling it out of the ocean.

So how did the mineral end up on the beaches of Mauritius?  Writing in “Nature Geoscience,” an international research team suggests it came from fragments of a continental landmass that had been long submerged and buried beneath huge masses of lava on the floor of the Indian Ocean, which came to the surface when the island was formed by plume-related lava.

Mauritia, as researchers have dubbed the possible long-lost micro-continent, may have been part of Rodinia (Russian for homeland), a supercontinent that existed between 1.1 billion and 750 million years ago and was located between land that has since become Madagascar and India.

An artist's rendering of the prehistoric continent of Rodinia - in tan surrounding the blue ocean (Image: Kelvin Ma via Wikimedia Commons)

An artist’s rendering of the prehistoric continent of Rodinia – in tan surrounding the blue ocean (Image: Kelvin Ma via Wikimedia Commons)

At one time, Rodinia contained most, if not all, of Earth’s landmass, and began to break apart about 750 million years ago during the Neoproterozoic era.

Researchers theorize Mauritia detached from present-day India and Madagascar when the two landmasses drifted apart about 60 to 83.5  million years ago, sinking to the ocean bottom in much the same way as the doomed legendary lost continent of Atlantis.

However, not all scientists have been won over by the lost continent theory.

Jérôme Dyment, a geologist at the Paris Institute of Earth Physics, told National Geographic he is unconvinced. He believes it’s possible the ancient zircon minerals on Mauritius could have made their way to the island in other ways, such as being a part of ship ballast or modern construction material.

Flower Signals Electrify Nectar-Seeking Bees

'First a little nectar from this flower then a little more from the other' (Photo: guy_incognito Via Creative Commons @ Flickr)

(Photo: guy_incognito Via Creative Commons @ Flickr)

Like a neon sign designed to attract customers, flowers emit electrical signals which help draw bees on the hunt for nectar.

While factors such as bright colors, patterns and tempting fragrances play a role in helping bees with their nectar-gathering duties, a study in Science Express reveals electrical signals from the blooms also help bees find and distinguish their targeted flowers.

Researchers from Bristol University’s School of Biological Sciences found that patterns of electrical signals emitted by flowers communicate information to the little pollinators.

Plants commonly emit weak and negatively-charged electric fields.  As they fly through the air, bees pick up positive electrical charges. Usually when a negative electrical signal meets a positive one, sparks can fly, but in the case of the bee and the bloom, nothing is exchanged except helpful information.

A bee gathers nectar from a flower (Photo: BitHead Via Creative Commons @ Flickr)

(Photo: BitHead Via Creative Commons @ Flickr)

“The co-evolution between flowers and bees has a long and beneficial history,” said Daniel Robert, the study’s lead author. “So perhaps it’s not entirely surprising that we are still discovering today how remarkably sophisticated their communication is.”

Another study on bees, from the University of Cambridge, suggests the contrast between flowers and their background is more important to bees than the colored vein patterns on pale flowers.

While flowers with patterns of varied color are more attractive to bees and provide them with guidance as to where to find nectar, researchers found little evidence to suggest bees specifically prefer the striped flowers.

The study revealed that solid red flowers reflect very little light and aren’t as interesting for the bees.

A bee grabs some nectar from a daisy (Photo: quas Via Creative Commons @ Flickr)

A bee grabs some nectar from a daisy (Photo: quas Via Creative Commons @ Flickr)

When compared with red blooms, researchers found flowers with an ivory background seemed to have the greatest effect on the bees. They think that’s because the ivory color contrasted better with the background than the red flowers.

The study also points out that bees were able to tell the difference between solid ivory and veined flowers, but had no preference between the two.  But, the researchers did find that both the solid ivory and veined flowers were much more popular with bees than the solid red flowers.

Venation patterns (the distribution or arrangement of a system of veins on a flower) might be prevalent in nature because they can be useful nectar guides, particularly when they also increase flower visibility. But it appears that the color contrast of a flower with its background has a greater influence on bee preference,” the research team concluded in a released statement.

Does ‘God Particle’ Spell End of the Universe?

Physicist Peter Higgs arrives at a seminar, July 4, 2013 at CERN where it was announced that a new subatomic particle, said be consistent with the long-sought Higgs boson, had been discovered. (Photo: AP Photo/Denis Balibouse, Pool)

Physicist Peter Higgs arrives at a seminar, July 4, 2012 at CERN, where it was announced that a new subatomic particle, said be consistent with the long-sought Higgs boson, had been discovered. (AP)

Last summer, when scientists finally cornered the elusive building block of the universe known as the Higgs boson, they apparently also discovered something else: that the universe’s days might be numbered.

“It may be that the universe we live in is inherently unstable,” said Joseph Lykken, a theoretical physicist from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. “And at some point, billions of years from now, it’s all going to get wiped out,”

Scientists refer to last year’s discovery as a Higgs boson-like particle, since they’re still working to confirm it really is the elusive particle. The Higgs boson, also called the “God particle”, is believed to give all objects mass. But Lykken says it could also spell doom for the universe.

The Large Hadron Collider/ATLAS at CERN (Photo: CERN)

The Large Hadron Collider/ATLAS at CERN (Photo: CERN)

Lykken shared his conclusions at the 2013 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The scientist has also worked with CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world’s biggest and most powerful particle accelerator, which helped identify the Higgs boson-like particle.”If you use all the physics that we know now and you do what you think is a straightforward calculation, it’s bad news,” said Lykken, according to the Reuters news agency.

The calculation Lykken refers to requires knowing the mass of the Higgs to within one percent, as well as the precise mass of other related subatomic particles.

According to Lykeen if any changes are made to the parameters of the Standard Model of particle physics, even by just a little bit, that you’ll get a different end of the universe.

In a simulated data model, a Higgs boson is produced which decays into two jets of hadrons and two electrons. (Photo: CERN)

A simulated data model of the Higgs boson  (Photo: CERN)

“This calculation tells you that many tens of billions of years from now, there’ll be a catastrophe,” Lykken told Reuters.

The Standard Model of particle physics provides an explanation for sub-nuclear physics and some aspects of cosmology in the earliest moments of the universe. In the standard model, it’s the Higgs boson that gives mass to all particles.

Lykken foresees the Armageddon scenario like this, “A little bubble of what you might think of as an ‘alternative’ universe will appear somewhere and then it will expand out and destroy us.”

He believes the cataclysmic event will take place quite quickly, at the speed of light.

The good news for planet Earth is that the end of the universe won’t occur for billions of years, long after the Sun burns out, an occurence which will destroy Earth long before the universe’s number is up.

Earth Gets a Hit, Braces for a Miss

A meteorite contrail is seen over a vilage of Bolshoe Sidelnikovo 50 km of Chelyabinsk on Friday, Feb. 15, 2013. (Photo: AP/Nadezhda Luchinina, E1.ru)

A meteorite contrail is seen over a village in Russia’s Chelyabinsk region on Friday, Feb. 15, 2013. (AP)

Earth suddenly seems to be dodging celestial objects, although there was a direct hit earlier today when a streaking meteorite exploded above Russia’s Ural Mountains.

Hundreds of people were injured.  The powerful blast damaged the facades of buildings and shattered windows, according to the Russian Interior Ministry,

Now all eyes are on an asteroid that should zip past our planet today at 1924 UTC. However, experts say we are in no danger from asteroid 2012 DA14.

“According to NASA scientists, the trajectory of the Russian meteorite was significantly different than the trajectory of the asteroid 2012 DA14, making it a completely unrelated object. Information is still being collected about the Russian meteorite and analysis is preliminary at this point. In videos of the meteor, it is seen to pass from left to right in front of the rising sun, which means it was traveling from north to south. Asteroid DA14’s trajectory is in the opposite direction, from south to north.”

This animated set of images depicts asteroid 2012 DA14 as it was seen on 02-14-13, at a distance of 748,000 kilometers. The asteroid is the large bright spot moving near the middle of image. The other dots are stars in the background. A line that appears comes from a satellite that passed through the field of view.(Image credit: LCOGT/E. Gomez/Faulkes South/Remanzacco Observatory)

This animated set of images depicts asteroid 2012 DA14 as it was seen on 02-14-13, at a distance of 748,000 kilometers. The asteroid is the large bright spot moving near the middle of image. The other dots are stars in the background. A line that appears comes from a satellite that passed through the field of view.(Image credit: LCOGT/E. Gomez/Faulkes South/Remanzacco Observatory)

The asteroid is expected to fly past us at a speed of about 7.8 kilometers per second, coming within 27,000 kilometers of Earth. That’s close enough so that it will pass inside the ring of geosynchronous weather and communications satellites that circle our planet at about 36,000 kilometers above Earth.

Barringer (or Meteor) Crater, in Arizona, measures 180 meters deep and 1,200 meters wide. Scientists estimate that a small asteroid about 45 meters in diameter, same as the passing 2012 DA14 created the hole some 25,000 years ago. (Photo: Kevin Walsh @ Creative Commons via Flickr)

The Barringer (or Meteor) Crater in Arizona measures 180 meters deep and 1,200 meters wide. Scientists estimate that a small asteroid, about the same size as the passing 2012 DA14, created the hole some 25,000 years ago. (Photo: Kevin Walsh @ Creative Commons via Flickr)

NASA, which has been studying the asteroid’s path, says there’s no chance the asteroid might collide with Earth. The flyby will, however, provide a unique opportunity for researchers to study a near-Earth object up close.

The 2012 DA14 asteroid is about 45 meters across, less than the width of a soccer field, weighs about 130,000 metric tons, and is most likely made of stone, rather than metal or ice.

Although the passing asteroid is relatively small in size, it could pack a mighty punch if it did swerve out of its projected path and hit the Earth.

Jack Rozdilsky an emergency management expert at Western Illinois University has considered the possibility of a hit.

“If the 150-foot asteroid passing Earth on Friday were on a collision course with the planet, it would impact the surface with an explosive force of 2.4 megatons of TNT,” Rozdilsky said.

While such a hit would not be planet destroying, it could wipe out a large metropolitan area in a one single blow.

“While popular disaster films such as ‘Armageddon’ have depicted fictionalized accounts of asteroids threatening Earth, asteroid impacts on Earth are not necessarily far-fetched,” Rozdilsky said. “In 1908, a comet impacted Tunguska, a forest in a remote area of northern Russia, with the resultant explosion devastating a large unpopulated area.”

A NASA animation show the trajectory of asteroid 2012 DA14 as it travels within the Earth-moon system on Feb. 15, 2013

 

NASA Launches Powerful Earth-Observing Satellite

An Atlas-V rocket with the Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM) spacecraft onboard is seen as it launches on Monday, Feb. 11, 2013 at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. (Photo: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

An Atlas V rocket carrying Landsat 8 seen just after launch at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. (NASA)

NASA’s latest Earth-observing satellite rocketed into space today continuing a program which began more than 40 years ago.

An Atlas V rocket carrying the Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM) spacecraft launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Lompoc, California.

NASA officials called today’s launch “picture perfect.”   The spacecraft is now on its own after a successful separation from the Centaur upper stage.

The LDCM is the eighth in a series of global observational spacecraft called Landsat, a collaborative effort between NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

According to NASA, it will play a critical role in monitoring, understanding and managing the resources, such as food and water, needed to sustain human life.

After three months of testing in orbit, the satellite will become known as Landsat 8, and all operational control of the spacecraft will transfer to USGS.

All Landsat data and imaging will continue to be collected by USGS primary ground stations in South Dakota and Australia.

Orbiting Earth every 99 minutes, Landsat 8 will be able to image Earth every 16 days as it circles the globe in a near polar orbit. Two new sophisticated instruments, Operational Land Imager (OLI) and the Thermal Infrared Sensor (TIRS), will allow Landsat 8 to provide image and data information that wasn’t possible with previous Landsat satellites.

Images from the Landsat satellite series show the Aral Sea in central Asia shrinking significantly from 1977 to 2010 because of water diversion for agricultural use. (Images: USGS EROS Data Center)

Landsat 7 took these images showing the significant shrinkage of central Asia’s Aral Sea from 1977 to 2010 due to water diversion for agricultural use. (USGS)

The OLI will cover wide areas of the Earth’s surface, sending back data and high definition images to help observers distinguish between various surfaces; such as urban, agricultural and forested areas.

The TIRS will use new technology which applies quantum physics to measure land surface temperature in two thermal bands, helping observers differentiate the temperature of the Earth’s surface from that of the atmosphere.

The Landsat mission to study and monitor our planet’s land masses began with the launch of Landsat 1  in 1972.

Since then, Landsat 2, 3, 4, 5 and 7 have all been put into service.  Landsat satellites 1 through 4 were taken out of service from the late 1970s through the early 1990s.

Landsat 5 , launched in 1984, was recently taken out of service and Landsat 6 never made it into orbit after a fuel line exploded seven minutes after liftoff.  Along with the just-launched Landsat 8, Landsat 7, which was sent into orbit in 1999, is the only remaining Landsat observing satellite still in service.

In 1974, Mount St Helens in Washington state was surrounded by forests. An image taken three months after the volcanic eruption on 18 May 1980 reveals the devastation caused by the blast, which directed its energy northwards. By 2011, much of the damaged region had started to regrow. (Images: USGS)

Landsat satellites snapped these Washington state images of  Mount St. Helens, which was surrounded by forests in 1974. Three months after the 1980 volcanic eruption, devastation caused by the blast is evident. By 2011, much of the damaged region had started to regrow. (USGS)

The imaging and data provided by the Landsat spacecraft  have helped scientists  better understand our planet’s climate, carbon cycle, ecosystems, water cycle, biogeochemistry and changes to Earth’s surface, as well as our understanding of visible effects  human have made to land surfaces.

NASA and USGS say the information provided by Landsat over the last 40 years has helped improve human and biodiversity health, energy and water management, urban planning, disaster recovery, and agriculture, which in turn has helped develop the world economy.

NASA video overview of the LDCM Mission

Science Images of the Week

NASA's Cassini spacecraft took this natural color composite photo of Saturn (Photo: NASA)

This natural color composite photo of Saturn was taken by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. (NASA)

A baby Adélie penguin nuzzles up to its mother. This photo was taken inside one of three bird colonies on Ross Island near Antarctica. (Photo: Penguinscience.com)

A baby Adélie penguin nuzzles up to its mother inside one of three bird colonies on Ross Island near Antarctica. (Penguinscience.com)

Here's A close-up photo of Robonaut 2 - R2, the first dexterous humanoid robot in space that was taken inside the International Space Station's Destiny laboratory. By the way you can see the reflections of NASA astronaut Kevin Ford on R2's helmet visor. (Photo: NASA)

This is Robonaut 2-R2, the first dexterous humanoid robot in space, in an image taken inside the International Space Station.  NASA astronaut Kevin Ford’s reflection can be seen on R2’s helmet visor. (NASA)

Lava from a tiny lava pond flows on the north side of Hawaii's Kilauea volcano. (Photo: USGS)

Lava from a lava pond, below the peak, flows on the north side of Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano. (USGS)

Using data from the Hubble Space Telescope this is an assembled photo illustration of the magnificent spiral galaxy M106. (Image: R. Gendler/NASA)

Photo illustration of the magnificent spiral galaxy M106, assembled using data from the Hubble Space Telescope. (NASA)

This is a photomicrograph of a brown fat cell (brown adipocyte) that was taken from a muscle stem cell (Image: Alessandra Pasut, Ottawa Hospital Research Institute)

This photograph, taken through a microscope, is of a brown fat cell (brown adipocyte) taken from a muscle stem cell. (Alessandra Pasut, Ottawa Hospital Research Institute)

Technicians pack-up and prepare NASA's Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM) satellite for its scheduled launch on Monday, Feb. 11th at 1800 UTC (Photo: NASA)

Technicians prepare NASA’s Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM) satellite for its scheduled launch on Monday, Feb. 11 at 1800 UTC. (NASA)

When sockeye salmon migrate from salt water to fresh water, they change color--going from their ocean colors of mostly silver to red when in fresh water (Photo: Dr. Tom Quinn, University of Washington)

Sockeye salmon migrate from salt water to fresh water in British Columbia’s Fraser River, changing from their silvery ocean colors to red in fresh water. (Tom Quinn, University of Washington)

The Orion nebula is featured in this sweeping image from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE. (Image: NASA)

The Orion nebula is showcased in this sweeping image from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE). (NASA)

An Atlas V rocket carrying NASA's Tracking and Data Relay Satellite-K (TDRS-K), streaks past the Vehicle Assembly Building and Launch Complex 39 at Kennedy Space Center in Florida  (Photo: NASA)

An Atlas V rocket carrying NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite-K (TDRS-K) streaks past a building at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (NASA)

Facebook ‘Unfriending’ Triggers Real-life Consequences

(Image: University of Colorado Denver)

(Image: University of Colorado Denver)

Facebook users who decide to unfriend someone may trigger a series of real-life consequences which reach beyond cyberspace, according to a new study from the University of Colorado Denver.

Based on 582 survey responses gathered via Twitter, the study found that 40 percent of people would avoid anyone who unfriended them on Facebook in real life. Half of the respondents said they would not avoid the person, and the remaining 10 percent were unsure.

The survey found more women than men would avoid contact with the person who unfriended them. That surprised researchers, who were unable to find any reasons behind the difference between genders.

Social media websites have opened a new chapter in human relationships. In the past, making a friend involved face to face communication and interaction; friends were an actual physical part of your social circle.

Sites like Facebook allow users to become friends with people they’ve never met and might never meet in person.

(Image: AP Photo/Craig Ruttle, file)

(Image: AP Photo/Craig Ruttle, file)

This past October, Facebook alone logged its one billionth user.

Social media websites have been changing the dynamics in interpersonal communication as well. Traditional face-to-face dialog has given way to quick online interactions that have their own set of rules, language and even etiquette – called ‘netiquette’.

“People think social networks are just for fun,” said study author Christopher Sibona, a doctoral student at the University of Colorado Denver Business School. “But, in fact, what you do on those sites can have real-world consequences.”

Sibona found there were six factors which predicted whether someone would avoid a person who unfriended them.

♥ If the person discussed the event after it happened

♥ If the emotional response to the unfriending was extremely negative

♥ If the person unfriended believed the action was due to offline behavior

♥ The geographical distance between the two – if they lived close to each other and there’s a chance of physical contact

♥ If the troubled relationship was discussed prior to the unfriending

♥ How strong the person valued the relationship before the unfriending

Those who thought the unfriending was punishment for behaving badly offline also tended to avoid further contact with the ‘unfriender’

Everybody loves friends (Image: Pollyalida/Creative Commons at Flickr)

Everybody loves friends (Image: Pollyalida/Creative Commons at Flickr)

Compared to real-life relationships, the cost of maintaining online relationships is extremely low, according to Sibona. “In the real world, you have to talk to people, go see them to maintain face-to-face relationships. That’s not the case in online relationships. ”

Sibona also points out that real-life friendships often end by just fading away as people drift apart. However, an online friendship can come to an abrupt end when one friend unilaterally declares the friendship is over.

“Since it’s done online, there is an air of unreality to it, but in fact there are real-life consequences,” Sibona said. “We are still trying to come to grips as a society on how to handle elements of social media. The etiquette is different and often quite stark.”

In 2010, Sibona authored another Facebook-based study which examined why people are unfriended on Facebook. He found four top reasons for unfriending:

♥ Frequent, unimportant posts

♥ Polarizing posts usually about politics or religion

♥ Inappropriate posts involving sexist, racist remarks

♥ Boring everyday life posts about children, food, spouses etc.

Unfriending someone in Facebook could have real world consequences (Image: Oli Dunkley/Creative Commons via Flickr)

Unfriending someone in Facebook could have real world consequences (Image: Oli Dunkley/Creative Commons via Flickr)

According to Sibona, past research shows individuals who’ve been ostracized from a group of friends experience lower moods, have less of a feeling of belonging, and feel a sense of loss of control and reduced self-esteem.

“People who are unfriended may face similar psychological effects, because unfriending may be viewed as a form of social exclusion,” Sibona said. “The study makes clear that unfriending is meaningful and has important psychological consequences for those to whom it occurs.”

Earth Preps for Close Encounter with Asteroid

Drawing of the path of near-Earth asteroid 2012ge DA14 showing it pass close to Earth on Feb. 15, 2013. (Image: NASA)

Drawing of the path of near-Earth asteroid 2012ge DA14 when it passes close to Earth on Feb. 15, 2013. (NASA)

Earth is about to have a close encounter with an asteroid, the nearest an object of its size has ever come to our planet.

The fly-by is expected to occur at around 1924 UTC on Feb. 15, according to scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The US space agency says there’s no chance the asteroid will collide with Earth.

“This is a record-setting close approach,” says Don Yeomans of NASA’s Near Earth Object Program at JPL. “Since regular sky surveys began in the 1990s, we’ve never seen an object this big get so close to Earth.”

Scientists expect the asteroid to pass us at a distance of about 27,700 km from the surface of the Earth. That’s close enough for it to pass inside the ring of a number of geosynchronous weather and communications satellites currently orbiting the Earth at about 36,000 km from Earth’s surface above the equator.

However, the asteroid should fly well above most of the satellites and spacecraft circling the planet, including the International Space Station (ISS).

To get an idea of just how close the 2012 DA14 asteroid will get to us, consider that it will come nearer to us than the moon, about 1/13th of the distance to the Moon, which is 384,400 km from Earth.

It’s expected to whiz by our planet quite fast, at a speed of about 7.8 kilometers per second in a south-to-north direction. This will be the closest an asteroid has come to Earth in at least 30 years and will give researchers a unique opportunity  to study it.

The 2012 DA14 is quite small, weighing about 130,000 metric tons and measuring about 45 meters across, less than the width of a soccer field. Astronomers believe it is made of stone, rather than metal or ice.

The asteroid was discovered by astronomers at the OAM Observatory in La Sagra, Spain less than a year ago, on Feb. 23, 2012, which is why “2012” is part of its name.


NASA video feature of asteroid fly-by

A few other asteroids have flown even closer to Earth, but they were much smaller than the one expected to zoom by this month.  Scientists say objects of this size fly this close to the Earth about once every 40 years; an actual collision with Earth happens about every 1,200 years.

The 2012 DA14 asteroid is so tiny, it’s expected to look like a small point of light, even to those using the biggest optical telescopes. Difficult to see with the naked eye, it will be easily visible with a good set of binoculars or a small telescope.

Astronomers say the best place to see the asteroid will be in Indonesia, but people in Eastern Europe, Asia and Australia should also be able to get a glimpse.

The public can watch the event through live feeds from telescopes in La Sagra and Tenerife, Spain.

NASA astronomers at the Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex (GDSCC) in California’s Mojave Desert will use radar imaging to determine the orbit of the asteroid, allowing them to better predict future encounters. The imaging data will also be used to create a 3D map showing the asteroid from all sides and should reveal more about the asteroid’s physical characteristics, such as its size and spin.

 

Living Microorganisms Found High Above Earth

A cluster E. coli bacteria magnified 10,000 times. Georgia Tech researchers found and documented many types of bacteria, include E.coli, up in the middle to upper regions of the Troposphere. (Photo: USDA)

Georgia Tech researchers found many types of bacteria, include E.coli, in the middle to upper regions of the troposphere. (Photo: USDA)

Scientists have discovered a considerable number of living microorganisms, including bacteria, in the middle to upper regions of the troposphere, the region of our atmosphere that’s about seven to 20 kilometers above the Earth’s surface.

Researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology said their findings might help other scientists learn more about the role microorganisms play in forming ice that may impact weather and climate.

Health and medical experts studying the transmission of disease could also benefit by gaining new insight into long-distance transport of bacteria.

Conditions in the troposphere cannot support most other forms of life without the aid of special equipment. Temperatures there can drop to as low as -55° C and the air pressure and density are considerably lower than on earth.

Microorganisms, such as bacteria, are plentiful and can be found everywhere on the Earth and in the sea.

These hardy little forms of life not only survive but actually thrive in some of the harshest conditions known to man. They live within other forms of life, such as the human body; in the soil and the air surrounding us; in scalding hot springs; the great depths of the ocean; and inside rocks deep within the Earth’s crust.

The eye of Hurricane Earl is shown outside the window of a DC-8 aircraft as air samples are gathered for a NASA study Georgia Tech scientists found living microorganisms in the samples. (Photo: NASA)

A view outside the window of a DC-8 aircraft as air samples are gathered for a NASA study. Georgia Tech scientists found living microorganisms in the samples. (Photo: NASA)

The microorganisms  documented by Georgia Tech scientists were gathered from air samples recovered as part of NASA’s 2010 Genesis and Rapid Intensification Processes (GRIP) program, which studies low- and high-altitude air masses associated with tropical storms.

NASA gathered the air samples from aboard a DC-8 aircraft that flew over both land and ocean, including the Caribbean Sea and portions of the Atlantic Ocean during and after two major tropical hurricanes in 2010, Earl and Karl.

Attaching a special filter system developed by the Georgia Tech team to the aircraft’s outside air sampling probes, researchers were able to collect numerous particles, including the microorganisms.

Once the air samples were taken, the filters were removed from the aircraft and sent to researchers for examination.

Rather than resorting to conventional cell-culture techniques to make their analysis, the researchers instead used genomic techniques, including polymerase chain reaction (PCR) – a biochemical technology used in molecular biology that magnifies a piece of DNA, allowing scientists to generate millions of copies of the DNA sequence, as well as gene sequencing to spot and estimate the quantities of microorganisms contained within the air samples.

The researchers found more bacteria than fungi among the microorganisms.

“We did not expect to find so many microorganisms in the troposphere, which is considered a difficult environment for life,” said one of the study’s authors, Kostas Konstantinidis, an assistant professor at Georgia Tech. “There seems to be quite a diversity of species, but not all bacteria make it into the upper troposphere.”

Terry Lathem, a graduate student in Georgia Tech’s School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, takes notes aboard a NASA DC-8 aircraft gathering samples of microorganisms in the atmosphere. (Photo: NASA)

Terry Lathem, a graduate student in Georgia Tech’s School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, aboard a NASA DC-8 aircraft while gathering samples of microorganisms in the atmosphere. (NASA)

The living bacterial cells found made up about 20 percent of the total particles detected within the size range of 0.25 to 1 microns in diameter.

Air samples taken over the ocean were found to contain mostly marine bacteria, while primarily terrestrial bacteria was found in samples taken above land.

The researchers also found that hurricanes had a major impact on the distribution and dynamics of microorganism populations.

Kostas Konstantinidis joins us for this weekend’s radio edition of Science World.  He’ll tell us how these findings could help advance research in climatology and medicine.

Check out the right column for scheduled air-times or listen now to the interview below.

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