Bioprecipitation: Link between germs, weather and education
A new study on bioprecipitation — the link between germs and the weather — underscores the importance of this understudied field and its link with biology, says Dr. Barbara Zorn-Arnold, a research biologist and instructor for University of Phoenix College of Natural Sciences. The 2011 study, presented at the 11th General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology in New Orleans, also highlights biology’s growing need to use multidisciplinary training to advance research on bioprecipitation’s environmental effects, adds Zorn-Arnold.
The study, led by bioprecipitation researchers at Montana State University in Bozeman, reports that bacteria, specifically Pseudomonas syringae (P. syringae), found at the core of hail samples may “significantly influence weather phenomena." Lead researcher Alexander Michaud told The Crisis Jones Report that the samples show evidence that bacteria and other microbiological particles may be the nucleating particle responsible for precipitation to occur. This is opposed to scientists' original belief that minerals are at the core of hailstone formation.
P. syringae, a bacterium named after the common lilac tree and often seen as brown specs on fruits and vegetables, is often seen as friend or foe, says Zorn-Arnold. On one hand it has the potential to devastate crops while some strains are known to curb fungal growth in Brazilian corn crops, she notes.
Yet, Zorn-Arnold acknowledges, the study’s findings also imply a great level of significance from a biology perspective.
“The link between bacteria and rainfall is more than a biological curiosity; it has implications for the way we understand bacterial lifecycles, agricultural pest control, the hydrological cycle and the feedback loop between ecosystems and weather,” says Zorn-Arnold, also the founder and director of BioResearch Services Inc., of Hoffman Estates, Ill.
Changing biology research
Bioprecipitation’s recent advances further reveal to Zorn-Arnold how the “hydrological cycle interacts with plants and plant pathogens in a more complex way than was originally envisioned.”
As a result, she believes this changes the face of bioprecipitation research in that it emphasizes the importance for future scientific research and problem-solving to reflect a multidisciplinary approach, especially in relation to P. syringae’s potential impact on environment and sustainability.
“There certainly is a need for multidisciplinary training in biology (to) address issues related to bioprecipitation and other complex biological phenomena. Understanding the life history and cycles of plant pathogens and their role in the environment can help us avoid epidemics that may threaten food security and undermine our economy,” Zorn-Arnold says.
This is especially relevant to P. syringae, she adds, because the ice-forming proteins, or bacteria’s protein coatings, on its cell surface gives it an advantage over other bacteria.
“Ice-forming bacteria can be dispersed at higher altitudes and over greater distances than bacteria whose dispersal is limited to the ground by splashes of rainfall,” she explains. “Under extreme environmental conditions, the bacterium’s population may grow which may lead to an increase in crop damage and loss.”
This could be devastating in light of the growing global population, she assesses.
Inter- and multidisciplinary education needed in science
As a result of such complex challenges, this study further suggests to her that future and current scientists analyzing potential solutions come from a variety of scientific disciplines in order to adequately research and evaluate the proposed solutions’ effectiveness and long-term consequences.
“At the very least, the bacteria need to be harmless to humans, ecologically and environmentally benign, and we need to know that enhancing precipitation in one area will not have devastating effects on precipitation patterns in other areas," says Zorn-Arnold. "Without these answers, introducing bacteria to increase rainfall could have far-reaching effects on the earth’s systems, our food supply, the economy, political stability and people’s lives.”
This study’s indication that microorganisms could be developed in the future as more potent precipitation starters also should raise the red flag for educators of the growing need for interdisciplinary science education, she adds. This includes the benefit scientists could reap from possessing a broad background in the liberal arts, she says.
“Multidisciplinary scientific knowledge coupled with a background in humanities allows scientists to fully comprehend the issues and place knowledge into a conceptual framework of historical and ethical importance,” Zorn-Arnold says. Scientists from different disciplines who are analyzing potential solutions would be able to adequately research and evaluate the proposed solutions’ effectiveness and long-term consequences.
This is why, she says, University of Phoenix College of Natural Sciences positions students well in the highly competitive and growing fields of biology and environmental management.
“In a time when other universities are cutting programs and courses, closing science libraries and limiting educational opportunities for students, University of Phoenix is expanding and preparing students to take advantage of developing scientific niches,” says Zorn-Arnold. Its degree programs’ “intellectual cross-pollination of science and liberal arts is the pathway to addressing complex issues, such as bioprecipitation.“