Yellowstone's tiniest inhabitants are more than meets the eye
The steaming waters of Yellowstone National Park look inhospitable to any kind of life. But on closer examination, the thermal pools are teeming with just that.
The distinct colors of the park’s pools, with rings ranging in color 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 visitors to the park simply see a beautiful natural feature, scientists see endless opportunities for discovery. Research in the park has already brought forward significant findings in the fields of medicine and origin of life studies. And continued exploration may uncover more ways humans can utilize the unique abilities of these extremophiles.
About an hour and a half outside of the park in Bozeman, graduate students conduct research on how people can use microbes here on Earth and in outer space under the supervision of Brent Peyton, the director of Montana State University’s Thermal Biology Institute.
“NASA has problems with biofilms on the international space station,” Peyton said. “And so we’ve got some organisms from the international space station that we’re trying to figure out how to keep them under control so they don’t grow and plug up the water systems on the international space station.”
Peyton is a professor of Chemical Biological Engineering at MSU. He says there’s fundamental knowledge to be gained from 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’s a lot of potential industrial applications with their enzymes and their capabilities that are still yet to be found.”
The most well-known discovery tied to the thermophiles of Yellowstone is the polymerase chain reaction, or PCR test. PCR testing helped push forward the Human Genome Project, mapping out human genetic code for the first time. Most recently PCR has been used in COVID testing.
Another area researchers at the institute are looking into are ways to cultivate microbes that could essentially “eat” plastic and convert it into a more biodegradable material.
There are also commercial applications — the Chicago-based Nature's Fynd uses a specific kind of thermophile from a group of fungi called Fusarium to make protein-rich food. The species is called Flavolapis — which is Latin for Yellowstone.
Nature’s Fynd co-founder Mark Kobubal discovered it while he was 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 are a food company,” said co-founder Thomas Jonas. “And I think what’s really exciting is you can find in nature things that are absolutely phenomenal and amazing. There are sources of food that we might not even be aware of and these microorganisms that we discovered in the springs of Yellowstone are actually a phenomenal source of protein.”
Jonas says the fungi 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 barren environments makes the production of this food more sustainable than traditional agriculture practices.
“For our generation learning to do more with less to be very efficient with what we have and to use our resources matters,” Jonas said. “It matters for the preservation of the environment, it matters for climate changes, it matters for being able to feed everyone.”
Brent Peyton with MSU’s Thermal Biology Institute says there’s still so much to learn about Yellowstone extremophiles — and how people might benefit from that knowledge.
“99 percent of these organisms have never been grown in a lab,” Peyton said. “There’s so much biotech potential left out there to explore.
"It’s exciting. It’s a great area to work in."