May 22, 2008
By Stephen Brattan, Manchester, NH

In the 1960’s, thermophiles were not yet discovered. But one day in 1966, a professor by the name of Thomas Brock was studying bacteria in Yellowstone, when he found living bacteria that was able to tolerate very warm waters, which was not known at the time. Biologists had had idea that organisms were able to reproduce and live in temperatures as high as water’s boiling point; 100 degrees Celsius. Yellowstone is one of the most populous places in the world for thermophiles now, and many species have yet to be discovered. We need to protect Yellowstone National Park in order to protect thermophilic organisms. These tiny, heat-loving organisms may be very helpful for future technological discoveries; they are more important than people realize.
Thomas’s best discovery was the organism, Thermus aquaticus. This thermophile was one of at least 50 species of thermophilic bacteria found at Yellowstone that is able to live in these high water temperatures. Thermus aquaticus was also the first of the Archaea, which are ancient microorganisms that some scientists think of as a separate kingdom of life.
Thermophiles have turned out to be amazing organisms. Their enzymes have been used to convert millions of pounds of corn into sugar. But these microorganisms do not only sweeten our sodas, Thermus aquaticus also supplied TAQ polymerase, the enzyme essential for polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, an artificial technique for replicating DNA. But PCR replicates DNA at a very fast pace: It allows one to duplicate a piece of DNA billions of times in a few hours, which is enough DNA to analyze someone’s heart’s content for genetic engineering, biotechnology, and forensic purposes. Thermophiles have contributed greatly to DNA fingerprinting, disease diagnostics, and forensic analysis. PCR is a billion-dollar industry, so scientists are searching for other thermophilic organisms around the world. The reason why thermophilic organisms are able do all of this work is because of their unique enzymes. Their enzymes work in high temperatures, where chemical reactions occur more quickly. Other organisms’ enzymes can’t function in such high temperatures as a thermophile.
Bioprospecting has greatly increased in Yellowstone National Park with the discovery of thermophiles and technological advances in the pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and agricultural sectors. Bioprospecting is the search for useful organic compounds in nature, for sources of genetic or biochemical resources. Bioprospecting has made possible other things that have been useful to biotechnology, including producing ethanol, treating agricultural food waste, recovering oil, improving animal feed, increasing juice yield from fruits, improving detergents, and other processes.
The thermophiles would be eco-friendly also. Bioprospecting thermophiles could help the world with a supply of ethanol the high temperature tolerant enzymes could be very valuable in the cellulose material degradation process, which is necessary to create ethanol. According to Dr. Sookie Bang, the enzymes of thermophiles “could help make the whole process more efficient.” (
Thermophiles may also be the answer to how life began on earth. In the beginning, the earth was a hot place, which possibly thermophilic organisms could tolerate. In order to live life, you need energy. In order to have energy you need adenosine triphosphate, or ATP. ATP requires a complex series of reactions that probably weren’t around to create the first cell. That means that there is a chance that these thermophiles used the hot water they thrive in to create energy and kick off the beginning of life. It is thought that the first living organisms lived in hot spring pools such as in Yellowstone today. Thermophiles are believed to be the least evolved group of organisms that people consider to be the original cell life forms, so if these were the primeval organisms then they are the ancestors of all living things today.
Hugh Morgan, a professor at the University of Waikato in New Zealand, believes that thermophiles may still use the same form of energy they might have used billions of years ago; the form of energy that might have created life.
Morgan has studied a molecule called pyrophosphate, a simple form of ATP that has a high-energy bond so it is tough to disconnect. The difference it has from ATP is that it doesn’t need a life form to create it. Instead, hot water reacts with geological formations naturally. Pyrophosphate is enough to power enzyme reactions, drive metabolism, and help form and start life. Professor Morgan is running tests at the university to see if thermophiles can function without ATP, and with pyrophosphate like he believes they did billions of years ago. The results were promising. Professor Morgan says, "In many cases they prefer to use ATP but they can use pyrophosphate as an alternative and so we’ve been promoting the idea that some of the essential reactions of the cell would originally have begun using pyrophosphate and then, for various evolutionary reasons the cell would have adapted to use ATP because it has a more secure supply of ATP due to its own metabolism." (

There are still many aspects of thermophilic organisms waiting to be discovered. Advances in medicine, agriculture and other things are all possibilities that will hopefully be reached someday. These organisms have unique enzymes that could help people in ways we haven’t discovered yet, and they could contribute to making a more “green” and clean earth by producing ethanol as well. These are just some reasons on why we need to protect thermophiles, and thus we need to protect Yellowstone.

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