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Bioaerosol transport in the atmosphere disperses microbial species between continents, affects human and plant health, and may influence hydrologic cycling. However, there have been few quantitative observations of bioaerosols at altitudes more than a few kilometers above the surface. Lack of data on bioaerosol distributions in the atmosphere has impeded efforts to assess the aerial dissemination of microbes and their vertical extent in the biosphere. In this study, a helium balloon payload system was used to sample microbial cells and dust particles in air masses as high as 38 km above sea level over three locations in the southwestern United States. The cell concentrations at altitudes between 3 and 29 km were highly similar (2–5 × 105 cells m−3) and approximately threefold lower than those observed in the convective boundary layer (CBL; 1 × 106 cells m−3), decreasing to 8 × 104 cells m−3 at 35–38 km. The detection of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and recovery of bacteria possessing extreme tolerance to desiccation and shortwave ultraviolet radiation confirmed that certain microorganisms have the capacity to persist at lower altitudes of the stratosphere. Our data and related calculations provide constraints on the upper altitudinal boundary for microbial habitability in the biosphere.

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ISME Journal

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