Cloudy With a Chance of Microbes

Undergraduate Student to Test Bacteria From Microorganisms at High Altitude
by Maya Pottiger ’17, M.Jour. ’19

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! Wait, no–it’s actually a University of Maryland student’s descending payload containing samples of microorganisms plucked from the upper atmosphere.

Researchers on a new frontier in atmospheric science are examining surprising evidence that microbes survive at high altitudes and may potentially influence weather by spurring formation of ice crystals and clouds. Since 2016, Caitlyn Singam ’19, M.S. ’20 has been perfecting a device that travels via weather balloon up to 100,000 feet in the air to bring live samples of high-flying bacteria back for study.

“Until recently, a lot of folks thought of the atmosphere as being a very passive player in biology,” Singam says. “A key point is that new research suggests that the atmosphere is an active player in biology, which is redefining the way we think about it.”

She ran practice launches to ensure the device worked correctly—opening its doors at the correct altitude to let in air to capture samples—before collecting data. The launches were funded by the Maryland Space Grant Consortium, and Robert E. Fischell Distinguished Professor William Bentley in the Fischell Department of Bioengineering offers lab space and guidance to the biological sciences major.

“It gets very creative,” Bentley says. “The whole device design, it’s meant to be foolproof. It’s advanced in the sense that if it works and it’s simple, that’s advanced.”

Next, she’ll start analyzing her samples for any bacteria, which—if they are alive and able to grow—could indicate if and how they’re contributing to phenomena like cloud formation, she says.

“It’s really thrilling to see something like this where I did pretty much all the work by myself go off into the wild blue yonder,” Singam says.


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