The stratosphere extends 31 miles above the Earth’s surface, and high-altitude fungi thrive at these altitudes. They challenge scientific beliefs about above-land life and affect our everyday experience.
While we don’t think of fungi as airborne, their spores can reach incredible heights. They might influence cloud formation, change our atmospheric makeup, and inform us of climate change.
Fungi also impact astrobiology. This field seeks to understand life outside our planet, and high-altitude organisms let us think of existence in new environments. If spores can survive extreme conditions, why can’t aliens?
Enough teasing. Let’s discuss fungi in the stratosphere and their extraordinary possibilities in more detail.
We live in the first layer of the Earth’s atmosphere, the troposphere. Directly above it sits the stratosphere, a cold, dry environment subjected to intense UV rays. Nothing should withstand it, but a 2018 study showed that life contradicts our preconceptions.
This research put what we previously knew about extremophiles into perspective.
Extremophile is a term coined in 1974 to describe organisms that grow well in extreme conditions. They thrive despite freezing, waterless, acidic, or high-pressure environments.
High-altitude fungi are a group of extremophiles that live in stratospheric environments. They adapt to unwelcoming and suboptimal conditions, developing never-before-seen mechanisms with intriguing implications.
Spores are reproductive structures that help fungi spread their genetic material. Functioning as tiny “seeds,” they travel vast distances to propagate the species.
Since fungi primarily emerge on land, how do their spores travel so far up?
The wind is among the most common spore dispersal methods on land. Updrafts and turbulent air currents can lift these cells to higher altitudes, where aerosols float unseen. They hitch a ride on ice crystals or dust particles, using them as platforms to go even higher.
What happens once they drift upwards? It depends on the species.
We still don’t know whether spores colonize and establish populations in the stratosphere. Some scientists say they remain dormant until they grasp a surface suitable for high-altitude fungi mycelium. Others argue that most of the cells die in extreme conditions.
While the latter sounds common-sensical, we have proof of the former.
An experiment found that lichen may survive Martian settings. Subject to the atmosphere, temperature, radiation, and pressure of Mars, they kept functioning as expected.
We also have proof of fungi inhabiting the space crafts that orbit the Earth. For example, the Mir Space Station hosted several species able to adapt to extraterrestrial environments.
How can we capture and investigate these elusive organisms? Here’s how it usually goes:
Extremophiles showcase life’s adaptive potential, making high-altitude fungi of interest in astrobiology. They also influence the Earth, ecosystems, and even humans.
When the spores of high-altitude fungi spend time in the troposphere, they aid cloud formation.
Like other aerosols, these structures provide surfaces for water vapor to condense and form droplets. For us, this means more clouds and a potential increase in rainfall. Imagine what this phenomenon could do against droughts if we learned how to harness it.
High-altitude fungi can alter the air around us.
When these fungi perform their natural processes, they release volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs interact with other components in the stratosphere and change its composition. We currently know about 250 types of fungal VOCs.
Airborne species usually come from the land and colonize higher altitudes. We can monitor spores in the stratosphere to gauge the well-being of ecosystems below them. Distribution, abundance, or diversity changes may suggest a shift in air quality and climates.
While way above breathing level, high-altitude fungi may still have health impacts. Most species are harmless or beneficial, but some may cause allergies and infections as they drift back down. We should categorize them and find ways to eradicate or mitigate harmful ones.
Mushrooms are the number one use of fungi in space. When cultivated in spaceships, edible extremophiles may produce fruiting bodies for astronaut consumption.
There’s also a potential drawback of high-altitude fungi for space travel. Common genera found in space produce acetic acid, which could damage building materials. Since we know they could infest spacecraft, we should understand their behavior to prevent damage.
If extremophiles can endure the stratosphere, why wouldn’t they grow on Venus or Saturn? Space agencies are currently prohibited from exposing other planets to Earth’s microfauna, but that can change as we learn more.
High-altitude fungi are a relatively unknown area worth exploring. They’re aerial pioneers for surviving extraterrestrial environments. They teach us about evolution, affect the air above us, and enable the spread of life beyond our planet.
Remember that the sky isn’t the limit for exploring the world’s mysteries. We should continue to push the boundaries of terrestrial and astrobiology. Who knows what skills we can gather from these organisms?
The fifth kingdom is an oft-discussed topic on our blog. Visit it for more thought-provoking ideas.
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