The hot springs and geysers of Yellowstone National Park attract research from throughout the world, but one of the hotspots of research is found at the Thermal Biology Institute at Montana State University (MSU).
Formed in 1999, the Institute has been likened to a 21st century “Corps of Discovery,” focused on expanding knowledge of Yellowstone’s geothermal environments.
Rather than focus on the large-scale geology that has raised the specter of a supervolcano slumbering beneath the park, the Institute is more focused on the unique life-forms that live in hot springs–scalding hot water, laden with a witch’s brew of chemistry hostile to humans, yet embraced by microbes and viruses.
MSU has been a pioneer in thermal biology. For example, Keith Cooksey, a microbiology professor, has found microbes in extremely hot environments that feed on CO2 from hot springs. That has raised the possibility that these little bugs could help clean CO2 from smokestacks. Gill Geesey, another university microbiologist, has scuba dived to the bottom of Mary Bay of Yellowstone Lake to research bacteria colonies found at the openings of hydrothermal vents, emitting hydrogen sulfides.
Another researcher, Rich Stout, has helped figure out why hot springs panic grass is so common in geyser basins throughout Yellowstone. It turns out that a microscopic fungus on the roots helps the roots survive and thrive in the hot soil. Tim McDermott, a soil microbiologist and MSU Thermal Biology Institute scientist, says there’s interest in transferring this type of plant/fungal partnership to farm fields, to enable wheat or other crop plants to withstand higher soil temperatures during hot, dry Yellowstone summers.
Institute researcher Mark Young, for example, has found novel viruses in environments greater than 175 degrees F at pH 3 or lower-the equivalent of boiling acid!
Research in thermal biology has really been taking off, said Susan Kelly, outreach coordinator for the Institute. She attributes this explosion in research partially to the development of new technologies, which give scientists “higher resolution of things they couldn’t see or test before.”
As a result, scientists are finding that the “diversity of life in Yellowstone’s thermal hot springs is more complex than we’d ever thought before.”
University of Colorado researchers have also been busy at Yellowstone. Research published recently in the online version of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicates that heat-loving microbes use hydrogen as an energy source-not just sulfur as was previously believed.
This new insight is bolstering arguments for life in other extreme environments, such as other planets. John Spear, lead author of the report, said there is lots of hydrogen in the universe. If there is life elsewhere in the universe, he said, hydrogen could be the fuel.
At a more mundane level, bacteria in ulcer-plagued stomachs also rely on hydrogen, say scientists. Jack Farmer, an astrobiologist who heads the Arizona State University Lead Team of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute, is also fascinated by Yellowstone. He views hot springs as windows to Earth’s primitive past, at the dawn of life.
The life forms studied by Farmer and the other scientists live nicely at temperatures between 176 and 237 degrees F.
According to Farmer, part of the reason science is making so many discoveries in thermal biology, is that until just a few decades ago, scientists assumed that life couldn’t exist in such hostile (to us, anyway) environments, and therefore didn’t look for life.
As scientists look more, they find more-enough to suggest that heat-loving life may be the most ancient life forms on earth and the likeliest form of life to be found elsewhere in the universe.