Yellowstone National Park is an incredible natural laboratory. Researchers from around the world travel to Yellowstone every year to conduct scientific studies across a range of disciplines, from A(nthropology) to Z(oology) and everything in between.
Nobel-winning research in the natural laboratory that is Yellowstone
Managing this constant influx of scientists is a full-time job, not only in terms of ensuring that their work is used to better manage park resources, but also taking advantage of the unique environment at Yellowstone. This combination of conservation of resources and capitalization on opportunities has yielded Nobel Prize-winning results!
Scientific research is an ongoing and never-ending process. For example, as the Park Geologist for Yellowstone put it, our current understanding of Yellowstone geology is merely a progress report, and not the final word. With changing technologies and fresh ideas, scientists will continue to discover new and exciting facets about Yellowstone.
The Research Permit Office in the Yellowstone Center for Resources assists scientists in their endeavors to study the park. The office issues approximately 150 research permits each year, covering topics from bumble bees to fire ecology to whitebark pine. Scientists from the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory also obtain permits to study various aspects of the volcano, including seismic activity, ground deformation, and the dynamics of hydrothermal features.
Scientific exploration has been a part of the Yellowstone National Park story from the beginning. The earliest trained geologists who explored the landscape were awed by the hydrothermal activity. The US government sent several expeditions to the Yellowstone region, beginning in 1871 with the Hayden expedition. The following year, Yellowstone was established as the world's first national park.
As more scientists were drawn to this wonderland of curiosities, the development of a standard process for granting permits for scientific collection and exploration became increasingly important. Today, the park's research permitting system allows park managers to balance the activities of qualified scientists with the preservation of park resources. In turn, decades of scientific inquiry and the resulting body of knowledge have allowed National Park Service officials to better understand, manage, and conserve the park.
One of the most significant scientific discoveries from Yellowstone was born from the colorful surface expressions of the park's hydrothermal features. In 1966, Dr. Thomas Brock and his colleagues isolated a new bacterium, Thermus aquaticus, from a hot spring in the Lower Geyser Basin. This microbe, which not only survives, but thrives in the extreme habitats provided by hot springs, mud pots, geysers, and steam vents, would lead to a discovery that has since changed the course of microbiology.
After obtaining a laboratory sample of Thermus aquaticus in the 1980s, Dr. Kary Mullis identified an enzyme in the bacterium that he named Taq polymerase (using the T from Thermus and the aq from aquaticus). Taq polymerase is capable of replicating strands of DNA at high temperatures that most enzymes cannot withstand. With the use of Taq polymerase, Dr. Mullis developed the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) technique, which allows scientists to replicate millions of copies of a DNA sequence. PCR is now regularly used in medical research, genome mapping projects, and even crime scene investigations. Dr. Mullis was awarded the 1993 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his groundbreaking work on PCR. Continuing this legacy, about 25% of the Yellowstone research permits issued annually investigate the unique microbial communities thriving in hydrothermal features.
While discoveries in Yellowstone are at the forefront of science, the truth remains that we will never know all there is to know about the various facets of Yellowstone volcano. For now, researchers strive to contribute to the progress report.
To learn more about research in Yellowstone, visit https://www.nps.gov/yell/learn/nature/research.htm.