The microbial diversity of a storm cloud as assessed by hailstones


Correspondence: Ulrich Gosewinkel Karlson, Department of Environmental Science, Aarhus University, Frederiksborgvej 399, 4000 Roskilde, Denmark. Tel.: +45 871 58617; fax: +45 871 55010, e-mail:


Being an extreme environment, the atmosphere may act as a selective barrier for bacterial dispersal, where only most robust organisms survive. By remaining viable during atmospheric transport, these cells affect the patterns of microbial distribution and modify the chemical composition of the atmosphere. The species evenness and richness, and the community composition of a storm cloud were studied applying cultivation-dependent and cultivation-independent techniques to a collection of hailstones. In toto 231 OTUs were identified, and the total species richness was estimated to be about 1800 OTUs. The diversity indices – species richness and evenness – suggest a functionally stable community, capable of resisting environmental stress. A broad substrate spectrum of the isolates with epiphytic origin (genus Methylobacterium) implied opportunistic ecologic strategy with high growth rates and fast growth responses. These may grow in situ despite their short residence times in cloud droplets. In addition, epiphytic isolates utilized many atmospheric organic compounds, including a variety of carboxylic acids. In summary, the highly diverse bacterial community, within which the opportunistic bacteria may be particularly important in terms of atmospheric chemistry, is likely to remain functional under stressful conditions. Overall our study adds important details to the growing evidence of active microbial life in clouds.