Life Science Blog

Frosty the Bacteria Man

March 3, 2008

Bacteria get a bad rap. Sure, the bubonic plague and cholera have killed untold millions of people, but a lot of other bugs do things we appreciate. They keep our stomach even keeled, they taste great with granola and berries, and now, it turns out, there’d be no snowball fights without them.

Snowflakes, surely the best loved of all forms of precipitation (unless we’ve got some hail fans out there), form as water freezes around a particulate core. And according to a new paper published Friday in Science, that core is usually bacteria.

Yes, the same organisms we spend so much time trying to kill are the ones responsible for snowmen, igloos, and skiing. The most common of the bacteria cores identified in the paper was Pseudomonas syringae, which can be harmful to trees and tomatoes, but apparently great for snowboarders.

Lest this revelation send throngs of later-day Howard Hughes’ into seclusion during the winter, let me emphasize that snow is perfectly safe (with the possible exception of the yellow kind your mother warned you about eating). In fact, this paper is an excellent reminder that good or bad, bacteria are everywhere, always, and are crucial to the functioning of our world.

In Full House, Stephen Gould noted that breaking up the history of life into “the Age of Mammals” or “the Age of Dinosaurs” is silly, as natural history is really just one long “Age of Bacteria”. This paper proves once again that it’s bacteria’s world, and we’re all just living in it. Or, as it turns out, sledding on it.

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