A type of bacteria that can be found in the Amazon rainforest and in ski resorts turn out to have some special superpowers: making ice crystals from water vapor.
Some species just surprise us. Pseudomonas syringae is not an uncommon kind of bacteria – at least when we talk about ski lodges. When the weather doesn’t cooperate, which means there’s not enough snow to maximize sliding down the slopes, the bacteria “activate” to produce artificial snow. They are also found in significant quantities deep in the Amazon rainforest and in the lowest level of the atmosphere called the troposphere.
It’s still unlike all the other types of bacteria for one good reason, although not the microbe version of Storm, it can actually nudge water molecules to form a crystalline pattern similar to iced water before it reaches a melting point.
Scientists were able to confirm this through an experiment involving sum frequency generation (SPG) spectroscopy.
“Infrared (IR) laser pulses are overlapped with visible laser pulses at the interface. Molecular resonances excited by the IR pulse enhance the signal and yield a vibrational spectrum of the interface,” said the paper published in Science Advances.
By analyzing the vibrations, the researchers learned that changes are happening with the water molecules, but not on the bacteria, which means the latter could be making these modifications on the molecules.
Perhaps the greater discovery is that it’s the proteins found on the walls of the bacteria, which are causing these water molecule changes. The proteins have an incredible ability to keep the molecules together and then separate to form the ice crystal structure while “shuffling” heat around them.
What Does This Mean to You?
While the experiment produces results that are worthy to be shared on Discovery Channel, the effects of this plant pathogen go beyond the science lab. For example, they may aggravate frost damage that threatens valuable food crops.
They may also alter the precipitation cycles and weather conditions of other countries, especially since the bacteria can go with the air currents flowing from the Amazon.
“Basically there could be something like planetary co-evolution. The Amazon emits huge amounts of these ice-nucleating bacteria, and they travel to some other place where they cause rainfall, now this rainfall allows plants on a very different continent to grow," said Tobias Weidner of Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research.
Further, if they can successfully replicate the bacteria’s work in other man-made materials, it may lead to bigger and more opportunities in cryobiology.
However, don’t count on these bacteria to make ice out of sand in the vast deserts as it takes more than nudging water droplets to do it.