Yellowstone National Park, the world’s first national park, was established to protect it diverse and amazing geothermal environment. The park contains more than 11,000 thermal features including the world’s greatest concentration of geysers. Yellowstone holds over half of the planets geothermal resources which also include hot springs, mudpots and steam vents. Yellowstone’s geothermal resources lie on top of one of the largest known active volcanoes; the Yellowstone caldera acts as a powerful heat source for geothermal activity.
A variety of geothermal environments exist in Yellowstone, based on the interaction between underlying geology, geochemistry , and the unique and abundant microbial life that makes a living in such extreme environments. Yellowstone could be considered a natural microbial ecology laboratory based on the diverse microbial life that is found in its thermal features. These extremophiles, organisms that thrive in extreme conditions (high temperatures, alkaline and acid, chemical-laden waters) highlight the interconnectedness of biology, chemistry and geology in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
Research conducted on the “extremophile” microbial communities of Yellowstone has enhanced the scientific understanding of the physical and chemical limits of life. Because Yellowstone thermal environments offer such a diversity of challenges to life they provide great places for studying the capabilities and limitations of organisms adapted to life in the extreme. Yellowstone hot springs provide a glimpse into the nature of the early biosphere. Comparisons of genetic sequences of many microorganisms suggest that the last common ancestor of organisms living today may have come from a high-temperature environment, not unlike those that exist today in Yellowstone’s thermal areas. Many scientists think that Yellowstone hot springs provide a glimpse into what environmental conditions on early Earth may have been like.
Studying Yellowstone thermal features not only helps us better understand the past; it is helping us prepare for the future. Some of the current research in Yellowstone thermal environments is being used in applied ways. Taq Polymerase, a heat-stable enzyme isolated from the bacterium Thermus aquaticus, an organism first identified in Yellowstone, revolutionized modern day biology with the automation of the PCR process, which allows scientists to replicate and identify DNA rapidly. Rapid identification has had repercussions in forensic science and in biomedical research. DNA analysis is one tool Yellowstone resource managers use to better understand and manage Yellowstone’s wildlife populations. Other applications that come out of thermal research involve the use of thermostable viruses, the process of alkaline hydrolysis, the natural breakdown of materials at high pH levels, and the use of thermophilic gene products to create biofuels.