By Evelyn Boswell
A Montana State University study is receiving widespread attention or discovering live bacteria in some of the hailstones that pummeled Gallatin County last summer.
Findings by MSU grad student Alex Michaud and former postdoctoral researcher at MSU, Brent Christner, were featured this week in the Los Angeles Times, U.S. News and World Report, Fox News, the Times of India and other media. Michaud spoke live May 27 on National Public Radio’s “Science Friday.” The BBC interviewed him by phone.
“I don’t think it’s set in yet,” Michaud commented about the attention. “Just the way the project came about, I never thought this many people would be interested in it.”
The media blitz followed presentations by Michaud and Christner at the May 24 meeting of the American Society for Microbiology in New Orleans. Michaud and Christner – now a microbiologist at Louisiana State University and an ongoing collaborator in MSU’s Antarctic projects — announced that the hailstones Michaud gathered at MSU and around the county last summer were formed around live bacteria.
That and other findings by Michaud and Christner built on a previous MSU discovery that was also widely noted. A study by MSU plant pathologist David Sands and affiliate professor Cindy Morris found active airborne bacteria involved in the formation of rain and snow over several continents. Before that discovery, scientists generally attributed the formation of hail, rain and snow to dust particles.
The new study showed that bacteria can become the nuclei, too. In fact, Christner said it’s possible that a large variety of live bacteria, as well as fungi, diatoms and algae, can serve as embryos for precipitation. The study showed that the bacterium Pseudomonas syringae has evolved to cause ice to form at higher temperatures than normally possible in the clouds.
Michaud normally studies geomicrobiology of subglacial environments in Antarctica, but he started studying hailstones as a side project after a June 30, 2010 hailstorm bombed MSU’s Cobleigh Hall, where he was working, as well as the rest of Gallatin County. Golfball-sized hail caused millions of dollars of damage in shattered windshields, battered houses and dented vehicles all over Bozeman. Hailstones also damaged the roof and siding of Michaud’s house. They cracked the windshield of his 2009 Toyota Corolla while it was parked under a carport.
Michaud originally gathered some of the hailstones as curios. He later gathered hundreds of pea-size hailstones from subsequent storms in Gallatin County. An MSU faculty member who read an initial article about Michaud’s study donated several large hailstones to Michaud, too.
Michaud said he decided to study the hail stones to keep him busy until his real project starts in Antarctica. Last fall, he said he had found a 1973 paper in the journal Nature that described microbes found in hailstones. But that study simply described the number of culturable bacteria in the different layers of a large hailstone. Michaud thought he might be able to update that study by using modern molecular tools.
“Using DNA, we can identify the bacteria present in the hail to see if they are related to known ice nucleation active bacteria,” Michaud explained. “This is one tool for understanding whether or not bacteria have a role in nucleating hailstones.”
Discovering bacteria in the middle of the hailstones would be significant, Michaud said as he continued his research.
“This may be another piece in the puzzle that helps to answer the many questions surrounding biological ice nucleation,” Michaud said. “Also, most ice nucleation active bacteria are plant pathogens, or at least associated with plant surfaces, so understanding the movement of agriculturally significant organisms will aid farmers in Montana and beyond.”
As a fellow in the National Science Foundation’s IGERT program (Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship), Michaud said he can initiate side projects, such as the hailstone study, in addition to his Antarctic work with John Priscu. A long-time polar researcher in Antarctica, Priscu is Michaud’s adviser and a professor in the Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences in MSU’s College of Agriculture.
Michaud is involved in several ice-related projects under Priscu’s supervision. One deals with bacterial mats in Antarctica. Another looks at a simulated lake as it freezes from the top down. Michaud traveled to Antarctica during the fall of 2009, and he’ll return there in 2011, 2012 and 2013. Most of his time will be spent on a massive project called WISSARD, or Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling. The NSF awarded $10 million to a team of 14 institutions to examine one of Earth’s final frontiers. They will drill through the Whillans Ice Stream and the Ross Ice Shelf and sample rivers and lakes below the Whillans Ice Stream and the grounding zone where the ice stream converges with the ice shelf.
Photo: Alex Michaud holds one of the large hailstones that fell June 30, 2010 on Gallatin County. Michaud studied this and hundreds of other hailstones for a new study that’s drawing national and international attention. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham). Author Evelyn Boswell is with the MSU News Service. For a related article, see, “Struck by hail, MSU grad student peers inside to learn their secrets” at montana.edu/cpa/news/nwview.php?article=9039.