YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK — Before COVID-19 ever existed and long before we started using the phrases, “Stay at Home” and “Shelter in Place” in daily conversation, Yellowstone National Park had already contributed to the battle over the deadly virus.
It all started in Yellowstone’s famous, colorful and numerous hot springs.
“Yellowstone has the largest concentration of hydrothermal features in the world,” said Annie Carlson, Yellowstone National Park Research Coordinator.
It’s in those hot spots where unique heat loving bacteria called thermophiles and extremophiles, have evolved. Anyone can see many of those springs just by touring the park’s thermal features on designated boardwalks.
Back in the mid 1960’s researcher Thomas Brock was taking a hot spring walk just like many people do every year. But he was intrigued by the organisms living in the extremely hot and acidic springs. Shortly afterward he identified a unique bacteria.
“The bacterial species that they identified is called Thermus Aquaticus," said Carlson. And that’s where the connection to the pandemic comes in. In 1985, scientists took an enzyme from that bacteria to invent a new laboratory process.
The enzymes solved a problem in DNA labs. Up until then, the enzymes used to map DNA were all destroyed by the heat the process generated. The Yellowstone enzyme was different because it thrives in such hot environments.
This gave researchers a way to quickly replicate small DNA strands in a process called PCR or a polymerase chain reaction.
So, one key molecule from a Yellowstone hot spring led to the DNA mapping we now take for granted in crime study, genealogy, and medicine, including vaccines, like the one being developed for COVID-19.
Carlson said, “Medically it’s a very important technique.”
That breakthrough, though decades old, still has a lot of potential. Carlson said, “you can imagine that with any infectious disease in the future that could be used.”
Yellowstone’s unique heat loving bacteria are so promising that a quarter of all the annual research permits in the park are issued to scientists looking for new and valuable bacteria.
Carlson said those scientists, “are really pushing the envelope with extremophile and thermophile research.”
That research goes way beyond medicine. Some scientists are searching for the origins of life on Earth and others are even looking for clues to life that may exist on other planets.
The next time you visit Yellowstone, you may see some of those scientists, who have received special permits to carefully tiptoe between thermal areas sampling the unique life that lives there.