Owing to the challenges posed to microbial aerosol sampling at high altitudes, very little is known about the abundance, diversity, and extent of microbial taxa in the Earth-atmosphere system. To directly address this knowledge gap, we designed, constructed, and tested a system that passively samples aerosols during ascent through the atmosphere while tethered to a helium-filled latex sounding balloon. The sampling payload is ~ 2.7 kg and comprised of an electronics box and three sampling chambers (one serving as a procedural control). Each chamber is sealed with retractable doors that can be commanded to open and close at designated altitudes. The payload is deployed together with radio beacons that transmit GPS coordinates (latitude, longitude and altitude) in real time for tracking and recovery. A cut mechanism separates the payload string from the balloon at any desired altitude, returning all equipment safely to the ground on a parachute. When the chambers are opened, aerosol sampling is performed using the Rotorod® collection method (40 rods per chamber), with each rod passing through 0.035 m3 per km of altitude sampled. Based on quality control measurements, the collection of ~ 100 cells rod(-1) provided a 3-sigma confidence level of detection. The payload system described can be mated with any type of balloon platform and provides a tool for characterizing the vertical distribution of microorganisms in the troposphere and stratosphere.
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