Microscopic Wildlife in Yellowstone National Park


by Linda Lennon

Yellowstone National Park is the home of a large intact ecosystem consisting of wolves, grizzly bears, elk, bison, and many other large species. It is also the home of some very small, exotic forms of life called thermophiles. The hot springs of many geyser basins are teeming with organisms living at the "edge." The beautiful colors of many of the geothermal springs in the Park occur as the result of the presence of a variety of tiny, heat-loving organisms. The colors in the springs change because different organisms thrive at different temperatures. Life as we used to know it was limited to hospitable environments. Scientists established, through observation, a temperature range where photosynthesis was believed possible.

The highest temperature where photosynthesis was deemed likely and bacteria could exist was thought to be about 160 degrees F. At temperatures higher than this, it was a known fact that enzymes were destroyed. Boiling was considered a sure way to kill bacteria.

Imagine the surprise of researcher Dr. Thomas Brock when he discovered in 1967 a bacterium that lived at 176 degrees F in the Mushroom Pool of Yellowstone National Park. Dr. Brock's discovery opened up a new era in biology, which has resulted in the recognition of a third kingdom of life, Archea. This discovery also began the search for other organisms that might exist outside of our previously recognized limits, both on Earth and on other planets. Our understanding of the ability of life to prosper in a variety of environments has been vastly expanded, while our definition of "hostile environment" is shrinking.

We now realize that there are organisms that "eat" sulfur, live kilometers beneath the surface in rocks, or even live near high-pressure, high-temperature, deep-sea volcanic vents. The possibilities for life now seem without bound.

Dr. Brock placed a sample of the first bacterium that he discovered, Thermus aquaticus, in the American Type Culture Collection, where it became available to anyone wishing to study it. Later, in the 80s, a scientist working for Cetus Corperation used a sample of this species to develop a process that uses the high temperature stability of the enzymes in this heat-loving organism to perform polymerization of DNA in large quantities. This highly successful process is invaluable to modern medicine. Revenues from the patenting of this process have topped $500 million a year, yet none of this money has been funneled back to YNP.

Research of "extremeophiles" in YNP has been increasing. As of 1996, there were 23 permits for "bioprospecting" successfully filed with the Park system. Universities, NASA, and industry continue to express unprecedented interest in thermophiles. There is a provision in the Park's set-up that allows scientific research to be conducted within its boundaries. Many have taken advantage of this opportunity.

In 1997, Diversa Corporation entered into a five-year agreement with the Park to collect samples of thermophilic organisms for a stated sum of money and a royalty on any patents issued as a result of their research.

The organisms themselves were to remain part of the public domain but now the Park System would be able to benefit from the "intellectual property" obtained from research on these organisms. While cooperative research and development of a public resource was considered a controversial move, the agreement held up to legal challenges. As of April 2000, the Park is able to benefit financially from research on this bio-resource.

Other geo-thermal sites in Iceland, New Zealand, and Japan have been exploited and partially destroyed, while the thermal features of Yellowstone have been preserved. Protection and preservation of resources are the stated goals of the National Park Service. Luckily, the organisms that live in Yellowstone's unique geothermal areas have inadvertently been preserved along with these geothermal features. When the Park was created in 1872, Congress surely had no idea that in addition to preserving the unique geologic features of the Park, they were also safe guarding thousands of tiny heat-loving organisms. That these invisible organisms would improve our lives, in addition to changing our thinking on the possible origins and the very definition of life itself is one of the unseen results of these policymakers' forethought.


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