We have completed maintenance on DiscoverMagazine.com and action may be required on your account. Learn More

High Life

By Josie Glausiusz
Mar 1, 2001 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 4:21 AM


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

Frigid, slim on nutrients, and bombarded by ultraviolet rays, clouds are about the last place on Earth scientists would look for life. Yet Birgit Sattler, a limnologist at the University of Innsbruck in Austria, has discovered bacteria that are not just surviving but thriving in the cumulous zone.

Sattler identified the bugs after a colleague sent her some cloud samples collected and frozen onto Teflon plates set up atop Mount Sonnblick, near Salzburg, Austria. Even at subfreezing temperatures, the bacteria could take up radioactively tagged amino acids and DNA bases. This indicates the microbes were still growing and reproducing. They may be surviving on protein-rich pollen grains, Sattler says, as well as on leaf particles and microscopic oil droplets that float upward. She thinks they may convert the oil into alcohol for use as their own antifreeze.

Lofty bacteria could influence climate by acting as nuclei around which rain droplets form. In addition, Sattler says, finding bacteria in clouds suggests that life could exist in similarly extreme surroundings on alien planets. "Why not? I've done research in glaciers, Antarctic lakes, and in Alpine ice, but this is the most extreme habitat in which I've found bacteria," she says. "If anything happens to Earth, bacteria will survive."

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.