The steaming waters of Yellowstone National Park seem inhospitable to any kind of life. But on closer inspection, thermal pools are full of it.
The distinct colors of the park’s pools, with rings ranging from pale yellow to rusty orange along the edges of the acidic waters, come from the microscopic organisms living in abundance in the extreme environment.
While park visitors simply see a beautiful natural feature, scientists see endless possibilities for discovery. Research in the park has already yielded important discoveries in the fields of medicine and studies of the origin of life. And continued exploration may uncover other ways humans can utilize the unique abilities of these extremophiles.
About an hour and a half outside Bozeman Park, graduate students are conducting research into how people can use microbes here on Earth and in space under the supervision of Brent Peyton, director of the Montana State University Thermal Biology Institute.
“NASA has issues with biofilms on the International Space Station,” Peyton said. “And so we have organisms on the international space station that we’re trying to figure out how to keep them under control so they don’t grow and clog the water systems on the international space station.”
Peyton is a professor of chemical and biological engineering at MSU. He says there is fundamental knowledge to be gained by studying the thermophiles of Yellowstone.
“They’re very unique,” he said. “Thermophiles, in general, are very under-characterized as a group of organisms. And then there are a lot of potential industrial applications with their enzymes and their abilities that have yet to be found.
The best-known discovery related to Yellowstone thermophiles is the polymerase chain reaction, or PCR test. PCR testing has helped advance the Human Genome Project, mapping the human genetic code for the first time. More recently, PCR has been used in COVID testing.
Researchers at the institute are also investigating ways to grow microbes that could essentially “eat” plastic and convert it into a more biodegradable material.
There are also commercial applications – Chicago-based Nature’s Fynd uses a specific type of thermophile from a group of fungi called Fusarium to make protein-rich foods. The species is called Flavolapis – which is Latin for Yellowstone.
Nature’s Fynd co-founder Mark Kobubal discovered it while doing research for the National Science Foundation and NASA in 2009.
“It’s kind of an unusual origin story for a food company, but we’re a food company,” said co-founder Thomas Jonas. “And I think what’s really exciting is that you can find absolutely phenomenal and amazing things in nature. There are food sources that we may not even be aware of and these microorganisms that we discovered in Yellowstone springs are actually a phenomenal source of protein.
Jonas says mushrooms can be used to make a wide variety of foods, from meatless breakfast patties to dairy-free cream cheese. The microorganism’s ability to thrive in arid environments makes the production of this food more sustainable than traditional farming practices.
“For our generation, learning to do more with less to be very efficient with what we have and use our resources is important,” Jonas said. “It’s important for the preservation of the environment, it’s important for climate change, it’s important to be able to feed everyone.”
Brent Peyton of MSU’s Thermal Biology Institute says there’s still a lot to learn about extremophiles in Yellowstone — and how people could benefit from this knowledge.
“99% of these organisms have never been grown in the lab,” Peyton said. “There is still so much biotech potential to explore.
“It’s exciting. It’s a great area to work in.”
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