Microbial life in the atmosphere – an extreme habitat as analogue to exoplanets

It is known that the atmosphere can harbour active microorganisms which can show metabolism even up to the stratosphere. To define high altitudes as active ecosystem is the goal of this project where microbial metabolic rates, abundances and diversity will be determined. Also, a rough estimation oft he carbon budget should result in a better understanding of the atmosphere as a link to the global carbon budget.

Hence, air samples of various altitudes and catchment areas will be investigated to compare high mountainous regions with urban areas. In addition, a stratospheric balloon will be launched to collect samples from high up. Ice and snow are perfect sediment traps for atmospheric depositions and are linked to it. To estimate the ecological relevance of icy areas we intend to use a new method to measure the abundance of photosynthetic pigments in the ice by laser excitation with a green laser (532nm).

Basically, the investigation of ultra-oligotropic environments requires a high measure of sterile working. The sources of contamination can be as influential as the therein living microorganisms. The study oft he cryosphere is thus comparable with the quest for life on exoplanets. To evaluate these methods and to test them for suitability for extraterrestrial habitats contamination vectors will be studied as well.

In this project, a high diversity of school types are connected which requires a well planned team work. While one school will be engaged with more technical goals (i.e. to develop the sampling mechanism for the stratospheric balloon, other classes will be more engaged in the investigation of biological samples where the children will visit the respective institutes. They will be involved in publications and one final conference targeting on this topic. Moreover, they will be preparing with the scientists from Austria and also from the US a booklet and online-learning units as the final product oft he project.

This project has been completed.