Yellowstone at a Crossroads

“Follow in our footsteps as closely as you can,” a graduate student said. “And step on the green grass as much as possible,” added Brent Peyton, Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Montana State University. “There’s less likely to be a hot cavern underneath.”

Falling in line behind the five men, I carefully placed my foot on the indentation left by the feet in front of me. To my left and right hot springs gurgled and purled. Robin-egg-blue sky reflected in the calm water of another spring, contrasting with the deep orange around its edges. Ahead of our short train of researchers Mount Sheridan loomed above us at 10,308 feet. The fire lookout on its top reminded me of a Shriner’s hat.

It was a hot day for scurrying around steaming, boiling pots of water, yet that was the goal for this research crew from the Thermal Biology Institute. I met Peyton, fellow professor Matthew Fields (along with graduate students Storm Shirley, Eric Beacraft, and John Aston) at Heart Lake Geyser Basin in the southeast section of Yellowstone National Park. After a sweaty, mosquito-ridden, 7.5-mile hike in, I found the men briskly hiking up the trail towards the geyser basin. They had backpacked in a few days prior (with six horses carrying 700 lbs of gear) and were camping at Heart Lake.

Peyton and the rest of the crew were “bioprospecting,” sampling alkaline hot springs. Much research has been done on the acidic hot springs in the Park, but this work is altogether new. According to Peyton, this is the “biggest effort of this kind in Yellowstone National Park to characterize alkaline hot springs.”

To pull off this kind of effort, Peyton had to be prepared to handle the rigors of the backcountry. In addition to the perils of wandering around a landscape where boiling water spews from the ground, hot pots are sometimes only concealed by a thin, breakable crust, and mosquitoes are so thick it’s possible they might carry away smaller members of a group, Peyton and friends had to be on the lookout for grizzly bears. (In fact they had to evacuate their original campsite when a bear chomped through a tent in a neighboring site.)

Science can be tricky when researchers venture out of the lab and into the wilderness, but the group came prepared—each person had a canister of bear spray holstered to his hip, gaiters over boots so hot water wouldn’t fill their shoes faster than they could remove them should they break through the crust and into a hot pool, and head nets packed into daypacks, just in case the bugs became unbearable. I, too, carried bear spray and heavy-duty bug juice, but fortunately only used the Deet.

When he is not in the field, Peyton is on the faculty of the Thermal Biology Institute (TBI) at MSU. TBI’s goal is to learn as much about Yellowstone’s hot springs, geysers, fumaroles and mud pots and then share that information through their many outreach activities, which was exactly what Peyton was doing. (A week after the Heart Lake Geyser Basin exploration, Peyton was at Old Faithful teaching kids how to make hot spring batiks.)

The first pool we examined, Peyton described as “big and murky with an orange crust.” Fellow Professor Fields noted the description in a journal next to the GPS data he had entered previously. Peyton and crew had spent the first two days in the geyser basin walking from spring to spring, sampling the water and noting the GPS points, temperature, pH and other important parameters. After compiling the information, they prioritized which hot pots to look at more closely.

While Peyton described and Fields transcribed, graduate student Shirley broke out the backcountry chemistry lab. He placed a couple of glass bottles on top of a blue and white cooler filled with dry ice. Thermometers, a pH meter and lots of plastic tubes littered the area around the spring.

Two 12-foot aluminum poles, each with a one-liter plastic Nalgene bottle strapped to the end, were hauled out. Another graduate student—Beacraft—dipped the bottle in the spring and collected a sample of water for a community analysis— a who’s who of the orange-crusted spring.

When it was Peyton’s turn to take a sample, he collected a big glob of gooey orange microbial mat. Everyone was excited to see such a dense sample; usually they end up with a lot of sand and gravel. After squeezing the mat into tubes, Peyton put the samples on dry ice as quickly as possible to stop any further growth or die-off. Essentially, he wanted the sample preserved as closely in that moment as possible. These samples, once sent to the Joint Genome Institute, will have their DNA extracted and a large DNA database (called a metagenome) will be created. Many hot springs organisms have proved difficult, if not impossible, to grow in laboratory conditions. Metagenomics is a new tool that allows researchers like Peyton to gather microorganisms in the field and isolate the DNA cells. From there, they can unlock the mysteries of these organisms’ physiology, metabolism and ecology.

After analyzing the sulfides (almost negligible) and the dissolved oxygen at “Big and Murky,” the samples were packed up and we headed toward the next spring. Harebells, yarrow, and poison hemlock poked through the yellowing grass along Witch Creek. I had read in a guidebook that this area would be marshy, but there was nary a drop of water in sight save for the creek and springs. Someone assured me that this was an abnormally dry year, which only added to the heat and otherworldliness of the basin.

To cross Witch Creek I leapt from the mid-river rock to the undercut bank where a couple hands grabbed me and pulled me forward. The water in Witch Creek was warm, but no one wanted to get their boots wet. The professors, Peyton and Fields, opted to walk across small rocks to get to the other side. Upstream, hot springs spilled into the creek, geothermally heating it to the point that fish cannot live in it. I dipped my hand in and swirled the warm water through my fingers.
Yellowstone National Park itself is at a crossroads, a pivotal moment when the National Park Service has to decide whether or not “bioprospecting” (removing biological material from the park to test for potentially profitable and beneficial uses) will be allowed. Like Peyton, bioprospectors take small samples from hot springs—less water than a camper takes filling up her water bottle—and glean as much information as they can by studying the DNA or growing the organism in the lab. Chief of the Yellowstone Center for Resources, Tom Olliff, is quick to point out that bioprospecting is a non-consumptive use of Park resources. “They’re not using the organism itself, they’re replicating a process.”

For years, scientists have taken small samples from Park thermal features in hopes of discovering something that might have commercial benefits, and bioprospecting in Yellowstone has become the basis for a multi-hundred million dollar-a-year biotechnology industry. Diversa Corporation is one of the biotechnology companies that were plying Yellowstone’s hot springs for useful bacteria when they discovered a potentially profitable enzyme. In 1997, the Park Service hoped to share in the intellectual and monetary success of Diversa’s find and entered into a benefits sharing agreement with them.

Unfortunately for Diversa, environmental groups didn’t like the idea of using the Park’s resources for profit. They believed Yellowstone was headed down a slippery slope; a few vials of water now, might be something bigger, later. Additionally, the Park Service had not put together an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The EIS document would describe the possible impacts of bioprospecting on the environment, and ways to mitigate any negative effects.

The environmental groups went before a judge, and a court order was issued requiring the Park Service to draft an EIS for activities relating to bioprospecting in Yellowstone and 270 other National Parks. The judge also ruled that bioprospecting was not a consumptive use and using Yellowstone as a laboratory was appropriate. Although the Park was mandated to do an EIS, “we actually got a lot of interesting and useful rulings (from the court case),” explains Olliff. In September of 2006 the EIS was released and open for comments until January 2007. Olliff expects the final EIS to be completed by the end of summer 2007 after “working through some interesting and sticky questions with the lawyers.”

This century’s scientists aren’t the first to take note of the colorful and life-filled deposits in Yellowstone’s hot springs. In 1889 geologist Walter H. Weed recognized microbes among the colors of the Park’s hot pots. These bacteria are so small that 500 of them could fit on the period at the end of this sentence and it’s only because there are such a large number of individuals that Weed could see them.

Seventy plus years after Weed noticed hot spring bacteria, another scientist made an important discovery in the Great Fountain area of the Lower Geyser Basin. Thomas Brock discovered Thermus aquaticus, for which a whole new kingdom of life was created (Archae), and to which we owe the ability to copy and amplify DNA quickly.

Taq, as Thermus aquaticus. is affectionately known, is active at high temperatures and thus can be used in the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) needed to copy DNA. During each of the heating cycles of PCR, Taq lives on, whereas the bacteria previously used would die. From one molecule of DNA, comes a million, thanks to Taq. If one single-celled organism from a hot spring filled with an unknown number of bacteria and archae, can revolutionize medical research and forensics, what else might be lurking beneath the surface? And how might it benefit society?

Peyton may be the first person to attempt to answer that question in regard to alkaline hot springs—that water with a pH greater than seven. While many hot springs look the same, or at least similar, they are in fact quite different from each other. The microorganisms in acidic springs (such as those found in Norris Geyser Basin) are entirely different than those living in neutral or alkaline springs, like the ones at Heart Lake Geyser Basin.

“We often find totally different species (in alkaline pools); it’s a hugely different environment,” Peyton notes in a soft, southern drawl. The acid concentration in acidic hot springs is 100,000 to a million times more acidic than normal water, Peyton explains. Alkaline springs, on the other hand, are 100,000 times more basic than normal water. “Nothing can survive above a pH of 12.” In fact, pH 10 is about as high as scientists have found in Yellowstone, “and nobody’s looked at it,” consternates Peyton.

Peyton is looking, and based on previous summers’ treks to Heart Lake, he knows that bacteria with names like Chloroflexaceae; Thermus; Sphingobacteriales; Verrucosispora; Micromonospora; Actinobacterium; Thermocrinus and Synechococcus swim around in these hot waters. It is also known that most of the single-celled critters are bacteria, with a few Archae thrown in for good measure. At lower temperatures algae and protozoa make the springs home.

But that’s where the knowing ends and the questioning begins. The microbes’ evolutionary history, exactly what species live in which of the alkaline hot springs and what their use to humans might be is still unknown. Peyton and the other researchers sieve through hot water in search of answers to some of the remaining questions. In addition to understanding the composition of hot spring ecosystems, Peyton wants to find out two things about these thermophiles.

First, do the bacteria have the potential to convert renewable biomass into useful compounds? For example, a new method of acquiring an alternative energy resource might be discovered if bacteria can convert wood chips into ethanol. Ethanol can be used as vehicle fuel, but when it is made from corn it is fairly inefficient. (Diversa Corporation is also working on more efficient ways to convert organic biomass into ethanol using Yellowstone’s thermophiles in hopes of providing alternative energy sources. The difference between their bioprospecting and Peyton’s is that Peyton doesn’t expect to make much money off his research.)

Secondly, Peyton is hoping the bacteria can be used to break down hazardous compounds like trinitrotoluene (TNT). TNT is an important constituent of many explosives. If the bacteria can molder TNT into harmless carbon dioxide and nitrogen it will have big implications for the disposal of weapons—something Peyton hopes the Department of Defense will be interested in.

Beyond Witch Creek, we arrived at another spring, and the sampling process began anew. Shirley found one of the few lodge pole pines scattered about the basin and unpacked the chemistry lab in the shade. Peyton, Beacraft and Aston double-checked the GPS points and Fields jotted in the notebook. Samples were taken, passing cloud cover appreciated, jokes made and the pursuit of science moved on.

I left the crew at the third spring—Dead Martha. One of the students named it Martha (it’s easier to keep track of the numerous geysers and hot springs when there is a temporary name assigned to them). After peering into the depth, some bones were spotted and “Dead” was added to the moniker. I gathered around the edge with the rest of the group trying to identify what type of bones lay far beneath the surface. We squinted, we wished we had polarizing lenses on our sunglasses, and then we gave up to the glare and reflection.

Before heading back to the trail, I snapped a group photo for posterity. Dead Martha is in the foreground, the men stand side by side in the middle, and Mount Sheridan fills the scene beyond them. I was struck by how the blues, oranges and whites in their clothes mimic the hot springs we’d been looking at. The men seemed to have become part of this big, weird Yellowstone.

As Peyton, Fields and their students headed up-slope to a hot spring they called “Brain Slime,” I hit the hot, dusty trail to fight off mosquitoes for the next few hours and contemplate this junction Yellowstone finds itself at. By the time this article is printed, the EIS will be complete and there will be new rules for bioprospecting in Yellowstone, granting the Park Service some of the intellectual and monetary benefits of the work being done inside Park boundaries. Some folks, like Peyton, will still be dipping into Park hot springs to satisfy their intellectual curiosity, others will be hoping to get a payoff from the next big discovery, but either way, the laboratory that is Yellowstone National Park will continue to provide as many questions as it does answers.

Big Sky Journal
October 05, 2007

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