“People have tried to understand how [the bacteria] control ice nucleation and they’ve done theoretical and computational studies,” study coauthor Tobias Weidner, a bioengineer at the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research, told The Verge. “And now, this is the first time we have experimental data that shows this actually happens.”
Understanding this ice-making ability of P. syringae, which live on crops and other plants, could help researchers protect these organisms from frost damage resulting from the formation of ice crystals insides the plant’s tissues. “They nucleate ice to attack plant cells. They’re also used in artificial snowmaking. Then, they’re also involved in climate processes,” Weidner told The Verge. “It’s pretty spectacular.” The information could also inform scientists’ understanding of how P. syringae create clouds and rain, or help those who use the bacteria to make artificial snow at ski resorts.
However, because the study used a powder called Snowmax, which contains dead P. syringae along with nutrients intended to help the microbes grow before they’re freeze-dried and irradiated, more work is needed to confirm how these bacteria function in the field, biologist and ecologist Cindy Morris of the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) told The Verge. “This paper tells us about the physics of what’s going on,” she said, but “it doesn’t tell us any more than we knew before about the role of these bacteria in precipitation.”
Clarification (April 26): This story has been updated to cite The Verge for the freezing point of water as –40° C.