Montana State University

Spring 2010

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Mountains and Minds

Some like it hot April 30, 2010 by Evelyn Boswell • Published 04/30/10

MSU scientists brave grizzlies, scalding water and leeches in search of new microorganisms in Yellowstone National Park

I usually learn about Montana State University research by interviewing students and faculty members on campus. A few months ago, however, I had the opportunity to join a dozen MSU scientists while they sampled geothermal pools in a remote area of Yellowstone National Park.

Would I like to hike several miles into the back country, camp deep in grizzly bear country and spend a day on thin soil (in air possibly thick with mosquitoes) to learn more about hot science at MSU?

I don't hesitate. I turn off my computer, dust off my hiking boots and join the expedition.

Photo by Kelly GorhamPhoto by Kelly Gorham

University of the YellowstoneSM

Part of a large interdisciplinary contingent that's responsible for MSU holding the title of "University of the YellowstoneSM," these grad students and faculty researchers are spending about five days collecting algae and microbes from hot pools in the south-central part of the park near Heart Lake and Mount Sheridan. They are also recording water temperatures and pH levels, so they can select the best conditions for growing the microorganisms in their labs.

"Every single person out here feels lucky to be out here in such a wonderful environment to do something like this," said Brent Peyton, one of three faculty members overseeing the fieldwork around Heart Lake.

The MSU team hopes to find algae that will yield a new kind of biofuel or microorganisms they can adapt for beneficial purposes like cleaning up toxic soil or capturing excess carbon from the atmosphere. One hot pool can hold thousands of different microbial populations, and many of those microbes may have genetic sequences that have never been seen before. The MSU researchers are also taking a general ecological survey and will make that information available to park scientists and researchers elsewhere.

Planning to join the MSU team on their final full day of the field season, I prepare for camping by buying freeze-dried food that won't have an odor when I pack it in. I buy waterproof storage bags that I can hang high in the trees so bears can't reach the scented contents. I gather my tent, sleeping bag and clothes, then see how much I can leave behind to keep my backpack as light as possible.

At the same time, I wonder if I can hike into a remote area of Yellowstone since my knees gave out a few weeks earlier while hiking through the Bridgers. Maybe an MSU writer who used to guide tourists through this area of Yellowstone should go in my place? Maybe another MSU writer is free, the one who keeps her backpack loaded in case she gets a sudden urge to hike?

Or maybe I shouldn't worry about anything. A photographer from the Los Angeles Times will accompany MSU photographer Kelly Gorham and me on the trip, and he could be tired after flying from California to Bozeman. Maybe he won't be used to hiking at altitudes this far above sea level. We'll be hiking near Mount Sheridan, which has an elevation of 10,380 feet.

Too late for substitutes and no point in speculating, I meet the photographers one morning in a Bozeman parking lot, and we head for Yellowstone. A few hours later--after stopping for bison, bubbling geysers, diving osprey, a back country camping permit, a glimpse of Old Faithful, lunch and a final stop at a civilized restroom--we arrive at the trailhead for Heart Lake.

It's a beautiful late August afternoon. It's not as hot as it could be this time of year, and the trail isn't as long or steep as I thought it would be. The sign says Heart Lake is 7.4 miles away instead of the 10 I expected. With several cars and trucks in the parking lot, it's obvious that we won't be alone.

It is bear country, though, so I follow the MSU photographer who's used to hiking in remote areas and making noise to ward off animals. We kick up lots of fine dust as we trudge along the trail. Eventually my backpack wears on my shoulders. My water runs low. We finally see Heart Lake, but it feels like I've received a cruel message on a rearview mirror. Objects are farther away than they appear. We stop at a creek to pump and filter water into water bottles, but the water--much like me--is too warm. We move on without it.

We continue down the trail and finally run into some of the MSU team as they're hiking toward camp after a day in the field. Dousing my plan for cooling off, they say the water in Heart Lake can be filtered for drinking, but it's not good for swimming. Ever the scientists, they conducted an experiment where one of them held his hand under water. It took only 45 seconds for the leeches to arrive.

We're ready to find our campsites and the researchers are ready to relax, so we arrange to meet tomorrow morning near the ranger station. The photographers and I then head to opposite sides of Heart Lake from the researchers. Our backcountry campsite is already divided into separate areas for tents, cooking and a pit toilet, so we pitch our tents and select our entrees for the evening meal.

With time to look around, we see loons swimming by the beach. Ripples distort the reflection of the evening sky. No bears are out tonight--at least, that we can see.

Photo by Kelly GorhamPhoto by Kelly Gorham

The science of hot water

Peyton, a professor in MSU's Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, has worked in the Heart Lake area for the past five summers, collecting samples and recording water temperatures and pH levels in out-of-the way geothermal pools where the National Park Service gave him permits to work. Originally looking for heat-loving organisms that could break down explosives and others that break down cellulose that could eventually become a biofuel, Peyton worked alone for the first two years. He'd leave Bozeman early in the morning and drive to the Heart Lake trailhead. Then he'd hike about seven miles, collect samples for three hours, load up his backpack, hike back to his car and return the same night to Bozeman.

"It was a miserable day trip," Peyton said.

For the past three summers, Peyton has worked in the same area with two other MSU faculty members and their graduate students. Matthew Fields is an assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology and Center for Biofilm Engineering. Robin Gerlach is an associate professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering. Their work intertwined in many ways, the three have a variety of reasons for investigating the hot pools. This year, they are doing a little more algae hunting.

"Most of the time, when you come to these high temperature, high pH environments, they tend to be doing things that are biotechnologically relevant," Fields said. "If we can I.D. a microorganism that will work in those extremes, it might be something you can use in an industrial project or biotechnology."

Fields said he wants to know how microbes live in extreme environments and how they change with fluctuating pH levels and water temperatures. He wants to identify organisms that have a particular function, such as producing fuel or converting chemicals into other useful products. He wants to figure out how microbes operate in various communities so he can adapt those for new uses.

"Microbial communities run the planet. They play a huge part in what happens," Fields said.

Peyton said one of his goals is finding out basic information about the microbes that live in Yellowstone pools. In addition to biotech applications, he wants to understand their genetic structure, for example. He wants to know what drives the microbes' responses.

Peyton said he could have found a more accessible area that would have provided him with information and fewer bear stories, but he likes this spot. It's relatively quiet. He doesn't encounter nearly the number of tourists here that he would if he worked around Old Faithful or Grand Prismatic Spring. And the pools around Heart Lake have higher pH levels than Old Faithful and many other geothermal pools that scientists have studied in other parts of the park.

Neither good nor bad, higher pH levels just mean that Peyton found pools that would house different kinds of microbes and algae than the other pools being sampled. pH levels indicate how acidic or alkaline the hot pools are. The higher the pH, the more alkaline it is. The lower the pH, the more acidic it is. Battery acid and stomach acid lie at the bottom end of a scale that ranges from 0 to 14. Distilled water and milk fall in the middle. Household lyes and antimicrobial soaps lie at the high end.

Today's readings near Heart Lake will range from 6.62 to more than 9. Each pool offers a unique environment, but in general, the pools around Heart Lake are more like laundry soap than Coca-Cola.

Photo by Kelly GorhamPhoto by Kelly Gorham

Thin crust and brain slime

In the morning, the photographers and I gather up the gear we'll need for the day and head toward the ranger station to meet the MSU researchers. Right on time, they plan to make the most of the day, but they're prepared for the worst. Cans of bear spray dangle from their belt loops. Sunscreen, rain gear, mosquito repellent and bandages are stowed in their backpacks.

We hike about two miles down the trail, then veer off toward the geothermal pools that the team wants to continue sampling. The earth is thin here and a misstep means we could end up in scalding water, so Rob Gardner, doctoral student in chemical and biological engineering, pounds a pole on the ground to find the safest route across nature's minefield. Others follow in his footsteps to avoid breaking through the crust. Eager as they are to search for microbial treasures, they realize that it's literally wise to look before they leap.

The grad students and faculty members find shade and solid ground to set down their backpacks, Falcon tubes, thermometers, scapulas, purple polyethylene gloves, Ziploc bags, extra drinking water, lunches and other supplies. Then they fan out across the field to take their readings and samples. Since conditions vary from pool to pool, even within pools, they carefully sample each pool in a few locations. Gardner and Peyton head to "Brain Slime" first. The area has become so familiar that the group nicknamed one of its pools "Brain Slime" because of the wrinkled yellow/orange rock on the edge of the pool. "Dead Martha" got its name from the animal bones it contains.

"We're kind of dorky," Gardner said. "But it's better than calling it PKFII."

Gardner carries a telescopic pole with a polypropylene cup dangling from the end. It's the same pole he used to search for solid ground earlier and the same one he'll offer later as a handrail to people crossing Witch Creek. In this case, he doesn't want to burn himself, so he stands back from the pool, extends the pole and dips water from a safe distance. Peyton says the hottest water he's found in this area is almost 200 F.

Jacob Valenzuela, a doctoral fellow working with Fields, explains that he's looking for water ranging from 86 F to 131 F. That's the range where they expect to find algae growing in the hot pools. That--combined with higher pH levels--would also be a good range for growing the algae in their labs.

In one pool, Valenzuela and Fields are surprised to find 104 F in one spot and 122 F just 18 inches away. When they return to the lab, they'll try to figure out why it happened and what it means.

"(That much temperature) difference is big," Valenzuela says.

Meanwhile, Gerlach and Kristen Brileya, a doctoral student in microbiology, hunker down near Witch Creek to sample water and take readings to learn more about the geochemistry of the creek and hot pools. That's important, in part, so they can understand more about the metabolism and food requirements of the organisms that grow there, Gerlach said. If they know what a microbe eats in its natural habitat, they'll know how to feed it in the lab so it will grow. They also want to learn what the microbes are sensitive to and what they tolerate, so they can duplicate those conditions in the lab.

Photo by Kelly GorhamPhoto by Kelly Gorham

Huge biodiversity on a small scale

Some members of the group finish sampling their hot pools and decide to follow Witch Creek as it leaves the geothermal field and meanders through the woods. The idea is to take measurements and samples at various points along the creek to document a suite of conditions in the hot pools and creek. Valenzuela starts by jumping onto a sandbar and taking readings from the flowing water. The temperature is 93.2 F. The pH level is 9.16.

Valenzuela continues across the creek, and we follow him, precariously balancing on fallen logs. The grass grows long and thick the farther away we get from the hot pools. Trees block the view of Mount Sheridan. No longer worried about breaking through thermal crust, we now think more seriously about wildlife. The leaders clack sticks together and yell.

"Hey moose. We come in peace," Gardner called.

"Hey bear. We're coming through," Peyton shouted.

Finally satisfied that they've taken enough readings, the researchers take a break, then climb a small hill to reach the Heart Lake trail. With their work almost done, they have more time to talk about what it means to work in Yellowstone.

"A lot of people don't get this opportunity. This is pretty cool," Gardner said.

"I'm very lucky," Brilyea said. "There's a big difference from working in the lab."

Valenzuela says people often focus on the big animals of Yellowstone, but the park has so much more biodiversity than bears and moose. One reason he came to MSU from California was because of the chance to study microbes in Yellowstone.

Samples loaded into backpacks, we hike together toward Heart Lake, then split off again to our separate camps. The researchers have to prepare for the train of mules and horses that will arrive tomorrow to carry out their gear and samples. We have to boil water and decide the best time to leave in the morning.

And then the work begins.

Sampling hot pools in the back country of Yellowstone is the easiest part of their work, according to Peyton. Now it's time to return to the laboratory, determine what kind of organisms they collected, run genetic tests, conduct round after round of experiments and analyze the results. If they find algae with fuel-producing potential, they'll see an oil stain under the microscope. The stain will be fluorescent yellow. But it could be months, the researchers added, before they know the success of this field season.

"It's a black box right now," Peyton said. "There are so many unanswered questions."

MSU scientists find big science in microbial worlds

MSU is home to two internationally recognized microbial research entities--the Center for Biofilm Engineering and the Thermal Biology Institute.

Both programs are noted for their interdisciplinary collaboration, undergraduate and graduate opportunities and the quality and quantity of their research, which expands the basic understanding of the microbial world and seeks practical applications from their discoveries.

Many MSU researchers are also involved in MSU's Algal Biofuels Group and the NSF-funded IGERT program, short for Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship. The algal group consists of scientists in several departments who are working to produce biodiesel from algae and diatoms. IGERT trains graduate students to address complex microbial processes in microbiology, geobiology, biochemistry, engineering, mathematics and other related fields. The students--including four who were involved in the work around Heart Lake in Yellowstone National Park last summer--dissect and reassemble microbial habitats to understand their occupants and their activities.

Interdisciplinary research is emphasized in each of those programs, and MSU students and faculty who are involved say their collaborations with experts in other fields have been gratifying. They share their findings with colleagues on campus, as well as with scientists around the world, school children, industry and the general public.

In one recently announced project, MSU faculty members and students will use molecular technology to identify and categorize viruses from extreme environments around the world, primarily from very hot and very acidic places. MSU received a $1.37 million grant from the National Science Foundation to conduct research that will broaden the understanding of the viral world and its relationship to cellular life. That project is being led by Mark Young, professor in the Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology.

In another project, Brent Peyton of MSU and his collaborators at Yale University will use a four-year, $2 million grant from the NSF to study a South American fungus that naturally produces gases that contain many of the same hydrocarbon compounds found in petroleum-based diesel fuel. A team led by MSU plant sciences professor Gary Strobel discovered the fungus, called Gliocladium roseum, in the Patagonia region of Chile in 2002.

In another MSU project, microbiologist Matthew Fields received a five-year $1.65 million grant from the Department of Energy to work with researchers at five other universities, as well as scientists at three national laboratories to understand how interactions on a microscopic scale could change how people think about energy production, climate change and soil contamination. Fields is particularly interested in the relationship between the structure and function of microbial communities.