I’m going to quote Gramling’s opening line from the article, because I think it is a great example of engaging science writing: “When tiny sea algae get sick, they may sneeze the seeds of clouds.” How amazing is that idea? When people get infected by viruses, such as the adenovirus that causes the common cold, we may sneeze and spread the virus to another person. When this tiny phytoplankton species is infected with a virus, the cell dies. But the virus also causes the dying cell to rapidly drop its tiny calcium carbonate plates off the outside. (Perhaps this helps the virus spread more easily to other cells, which shed and grow the plates more slowly). Scientists think that the dispersion of these little plates of limescale in the oceans become part of a collection of microscopic particles that can get transferred to the air as aerosols in the sea spray. What role these calcium carbonate flakes have in cloud formation is still unclear. Maybe they help assemble water droplets, or impact the chemistry of the process. Or maybe they hinder cloud formation through interaction with other particles. No one really knows yet. But the latest finding by Miri Trainec and collaborators at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and elsewhere about how viruses can impact these dynamics is yet another piece of the puzzle that scientists didn’t know about before.When I read a little more background on this topic, I learned about some of the earlier research into algae and cloud formation. In 2015, Daniel McCoy at the University of Washington and collaborators studied cloud formation in the Southern Ocean, where they identified a correlation in changes in cloud cover with seasonal growth of marine life, including algae and other phytoplankton. Algae are known to grow more when nutrients or temperatures increase. If their population increases rapidly, it can lead to algal blooms, like the toxic Red Tide that is currently causing problems for people and marine wildlife along the Gulf Coast of Florida, causing Florida’s governor to declare a state of emergency. The phytoplankton in the current study also can create blooms. The impact of carbon storage and release during algal blooms is being studied in addition to the cloud formation parameters. As our climate changes and areas of the ocean change temperature, acidity, and composition, it will be increasingly important to understand the interplay between the geologic process in the atmosphere and the living systems in the oceans that are using Earth’s raw materials in their life cycles.
I noticed a little science tidbit about graceful-looking microbes only in the periphery of my daily news feeds on social media this week. The story of the plankton, though, shows the incremental pace of new scientific discovery, and the unexpected ways in which new findings can improve our understanding of big questions about our world. It also has piqued my curiosity about a topic I knew very little about, and builds on my appreciation of the cloud/microbe connection that I started reading about last year. Thanks to the science writers who brought the story to life, and to the scientists working on interesting questions! I’ll keep my eyes open for the next installment.