Atlas of the atmosphere

The air is teeming with microbes, and scientists are finally starting to understand how they influence everything from meteorology to epidemiology

Vanessa Schipani
Nov 30, 2010
Every cubic meter of air holds up to 100 million microorganisms, but the diversity and behavior of these microbes remains masked to microbiologists — until recently, that is.
Photo by Vanessa Schipani
Thanks to next-generation sequencing techniques, scientists are finally uncovering the details of the linkurl:biodiversity and biogeography; of this largely unknown ecosystem. They are discovering airborne microbes do much more than just ride the wind transmitting disease — microbes also help create the intricately beautiful designs in snowflakes and facilitate the formation of clouds, for example. Studying them, researchers say, could give insight into how to better monitor global climate change, as well as predict and track weather cycles and disease and allergen outbreaks."There's going to be an explosion of studies using these new techniques," said linkurl:Jessica Green,; microbial ecologist at the University of Oregon.
Photo by Vanessa Schipani
Recent research published in linkurl:PNAS; suggests that the...
Photo by Vanessa Schipani
A. Womack et al., "Biodiversity and biogeography of the atmosphere," Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society: B, 365: 3645-53, 2010.J Wolf, et al., "Elevated Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Concentrations Amplify Alternaria alternate Sporulation and Total Antigen Production," Environmental Health Perspectives, 118: 1223-28, 2010.A. Delort et al., "A short overview of the microbial populations in clouds: Potential roles in atmospheric chemistry and nucleation processes," Atmospheric Research, AOP, doi: 10.1016/jatmosres.2010.07.004, 2010. R. Bowers et al., "Spatial variability in airborne bacterial communities across land-use types and their relationships to the bacterial communities of potential source environments," The International Society for Microbiology Ecology Journal, AOP, doi:10.1038/ismej.2010.167, 2010.B. Christner et al., "Ubiquity of Biological Ice Nucleators in Snowfall," Science, 319: 1214, 2008.E. Brodie et al., "Urban aerosols harbor diverse and dynamic bacterial populations," PNAS, 104:299-304, 2006.Editor's note (December 1): When originally posted, the article stated that every cubic meter of air holds upwards of 100 million microorganisms. We meant to say "up to," meaning a potential maximum of 100 million. The Scientist regrets the error.