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article imageYellowstone's Geothermal Treasures Draw Scientists

By Debra Myers     Jan 13, 2008 in Science
Yellowstone's geothermal pools and hot spots have always drawn interest and curiosity from scientists. The tiny microbes that thrive in the super hot, acidic water continue to amaze scientists and only 1 percent of its microbial life has been explored.
Yellowstone - This weekend, scientist from around the world have come together for a 3-day conference at Yellowstone. In the past, only a few researchers were interested in the microbial life but today, 20 percent of the park's annual research permits involve geothermal studies.
"It attracts people interested in different things," said Bill Inskeep, director of the Research Coordination Network at Montana State University. Inskeep is a geochemist and organizer of the conference, the third since 2003.
Many of the scientists that have attended the conference brought with them the information that they've learned about what's living in the hot-water vents located at the bottom of Yellowstone Lake. Other researchers have studied how much arsenic, fluoride and other geothermally influenced agents flow into the Firehole River.
In what's considered the world's harshest environments, these tiny organisms continue to provide clues about life on our planet and the origins of it, as well as offering a dizzying array of implications for advancements in medicine, reducing pollution and even growing fruits and vegetables in warming climates. Now, with improved technologies, a way has opened-up for even more exciting discoveries.
One bacterium has shown effectiveness in consuming carbon dioxide coming out the smokestacks of a coal-fired power plant. Another offers a way to extract more oil from played-out wells. NASA researchers are looking at Yellowstone microbes to learn about what life might have been on Mars in a similarly harsh environment.
A plan is being finalized that will govern how the National Park Service will benefit from discoveries made there which would lead to commercial applications. Officials believe that there is a way to preserve these sensitive resources, yet will allow these discoveries to be used in industry or emerging biomedical research.
"This is the research that has the potential to change people's lives," said Tom Oliff, head of the Yellowstone Center for Resources.
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