Yellowstone Microbiology Research
Yellowstone is a living laboratory, and the microbiology that is studied in the open air laboratory of Yellowstone may effect you more than you could possibly imagine.
The geysers and hot springs of Yellowstone are surface manifestations of larger geological processes—the study of which has attracted scientists for more than 100 years. How does life begin and evolve? Is there life elsewhere in the Universe? What is the future of life on Earth? These fundamental questions make up the science of astrobiology, and some of NASA's top scientists are trying to answer them in, of all places, Yellowstone National Park. Microscopic organisms that have inhabited Yellowstone's hot springs for billions of years tell the story of life on earth, and could eventually lead to the discovery of life on other planets.
Scientists who study extreme environments are drawn to Yellowstone because it contains more active geothermal features than any other location on the planet. Extremophile microbe diversity and evolution are studied here in Yellowstone. Those features are also very diverse. Geothermal environments are obviously very hot, but they offer a variety of chemical extremes, some of which are relevant to applications in bioenergy and bioprocessing. An extremophile is an organism that thrives in, and even may require, physically or geochemically extreme conditions that are a death sentence to most life on Earth.
Yellowstone National Park is a focal point for this cutting-edge microbiology research. It provides settings that are of special value to microbiologists who are addressing questions of intense interest in astrobiology which is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe. The hydrothermal features have fascinated visitors for more than a century, but who would have thought that any living thing could not only survive, but thrive in these extreme conditions. We now know that Yellowstone's hot springs are more than just beautiful to look at, they are proving to be enormously valuable in what they are revealing about our own planet's geologic and biologic past.
Thomas Dale Brock is an American microbiologist known for his discovery of hyperthermophiles living in hot springs at Yellowstone National Park. In the late 1960s, Brock discovered high-temperature bacteria living in the Great Fountain region of Yellowstone, and with his colleague Hudson Freeze, they isolated a sample they named Thermus aquaticus. These discoveries led to the study of extremophiles, organisms that live in extreme environments. By 1976, T. aquaticus was found useful for artificially amplifying DNA segments. Brock's discoveries led to great progress in biology, contributed to new developments in medicine and agriculture, and helped create the new field of biotechnology. In related studies, Yale University scientists, peering into single molecules within an organism that makes its home near volcanic thermal vents, has discovered the structure of a key player in the creation of protein-making factories in humans.
Other researchers looking at bacterial mats in Yellowstone’s thermal pools also discovered a new species called Candidatus Chloracidobacterium termophilum that uses chlorophyll to convert the sun’s energy into chemical energy. These scientists found the bacteria, in Octopus and Mushroom springs and the Green Finger Pool, not far from Old Faithful. The bacterium grows best in temperatures between 120 and 150 degrees Fahrenheit and could help researchers drastically increase production of biofuels.
Yellowstone is one place where the importance of microorganisms is immediately noticed. Despite the park’s charismatic megafauna, plentiful examples of fire’s impact on megaflora, and its renowned geothermal features (geysers, hot springs, and fumaroles), Yellowstone is one place where the importance of microorganisms is immediately noticeable, even if not fully appreciated. Few who come to Yellowstone ever see a bear or wolf, while nearly everyone sees, but rarely appreciates, the microorganisms that thrive in the near-boiling water. When appropriately informed, though, some of the three million annual visitors begin to ponder why these microorganisms live in water too hot for humans, why they exhibit more genetic diversity than all organisms, including plants, and animals, and their place as hinge pins of evolution.