Montana State University

MSU researcher samples Chinese hot springs as part of international collaboration

July 26, 2011 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service


Visitors to the Tengchong Volcanic Geological Park in China can buy baskets, then visit a "buffet" near one of the most prominent hot springs in the park. After a staff member fills the baskets with peanuts or eggs, the visitors can heat the food in the hot springs. (Photo courtesy of Eric Boyd).   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
msunews@montana.edu
BOZEMAN -- Eric Boyd doesn't usually collect scientific samples next to people boiling eggs or soaking their feet, but he did on a recent expedition to southwest China.

Part of an international team that's training the next generation of scientists while studying hot springs in the United States and China, the MSU researcher collected microorganisms from the largest hot spring complex in China - the Tengchong Volcanic Geological Park in Yunnan Province.

Boyd conducted his field work while tourists dipped raw eggs wrapped in bamboo shoots into hot water. He gathered microbes near prospective parents drinking from one of two "pregnancy wells" depending on whether they wanted a boy or girl.

"It was all very interesting," said Boyd, an assistant research professor in MSU's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. "If you would do that in Yellowstone National Park, you would probably be fined a significant amount of money or get kicked out of the park."

Rules for visitors are quite different in Yellowstone and Tengchong Volcanic Geological Park, Boyd said. So is their size. Tengchong contains approximately 50 hot springs in one square mile, while Yellowstone has about 10,000 thermal features in 3,472square miles. But Boyd said both parks are beautiful, treasured and scientifically significant. He said both parks - as well as Great Basin National Park in Nevada - should provide valuable information to the dozens of geothermal chemists and biologists who are involved in a project that will train future scientists while building on existing knowledge about hot spring life in Yellowstone and elsewhere.

The five-year project is funded by the National Science Foundation and its Chinese equivalent. The NSF is providing $3.75 million through a highly competitive Partnership in International Research and Education (PIRE) grant. The Chinese scientists are seeking $2.5 million from the National Natural Science Foundation of China. If the project succeeds, participants hope to expand the study to East Asia including Japan, the Philippines, Russia, Taiwan and Thailand.

For now, the researchers want to document the microbial diversity in Tengchong and see how the hot springs function as an ecosystem, Boyd said. They also want to see how those hot springs complement what's already known about hot springs in the United States. A major question is how hot spring systems in two continents contain microbial communities that are genetically distinct but have such similar functions in carbon and nitrogen cycles.

Scientists study hot springs for a variety of reasons, Boyd continued. A main reason is because it's widely held that life originated and evolved in hot environment. By studying life in geothermal springs or hydrothermal vents, researchers believe they might be able to understand earlier forms of life and how they adapted to conditions on early Earth as well as to the many environmental changes that have occurred during the roughly 3.8-billion-year history of life on Earth. Scientists also study hot springs because their microbial communities are relatively simple compared to those that live in other environments such as soils. While the hot springs might contain as many as 100 or a thousand species, certain soils might contain greater than a million different species.

"Conditions in the springs are so extreme that they limit biodiversity," Boyd said.

Those extreme conditions, in fact, are why Boyd didn't worry about possible contamination while collecting microbes in China. Any microorganisms that people might introduce into the hot springs while boiling eggs couldn't survive, he explained.

"The study of high-temperature ecosystems (greater than 163.4 degrees Fahrenheit) is a major research frontier because temperature alters the ecology of these systems in ways that are profoundly important but poorly understood and because these springs are hot spots for novel, uncultivated organisms - so-called 'biological dark matter,'" Boyd and his fellow scientists wrote in their project description.

Hot springs also may contain useful organisms. The most dramatic example is Thermus aquaticus, a bacteria from Yellowstone that was first described in 1966. An enzyme from Thermus aquaticus made the modern, multi-billion-dollar DNA sequencing industry possible.

Another major goal of the U.S.-Chinese collaboration is to turn undergraduate and graduate students into scientists who can collaborate internationally, Boyd said. He said such cooperation is increasingly important. Since China is poised to become a scientific and economic superpower, the students will need to learn how to work together across language and cultural barriers.

"As a global community, the best way to do science is to harness all the resources available," Boyd said.

Making the hot spring study easier is the fact that two participants hold joint faculty appointments in China and the United States, Boyd said. Referring to Hailiang Dong of Miami University in Ohio and Chuanlun Zhang from the University of Georgia, Boyd said both scientists speak fluent English and Chinese and have laboratories in each country.

"They are kind of the bridge. The students work in both of these labs." Boyd said.

MSU students will be involved in the hot spring study over the next five years, Boyd said, but Montana students are already collaborating with the Chinese through a three-year paleontology project. That project began in 2010 and it is funded by the NSF and supervised by MSU paleontologists David Varricchio and Frankie Jackson. It is sending nine students a year and 27 in all to southeast China to study thousands of unusual dinosaur eggs in the Zhejiang Province.

"With the expanding Chinese economy, collaboration with Chinese scientists is extremely important," Jackson said. "Although the Internet has allowed tremendous changes in our ability to communicate with other researchers, the success of these collaborations requires a better understanding of Chinese history, culture and language.

"There is no better way to acquire it than from first-hand experience," Jackson said.

Varricchio said, "China has an amazing richness in fossils ranging from Burgess Shale-type faunas and fossilized early stage embryos in the Cambrian of Yunnan Province to the spectacular feathered dinosaurs from the Cretaceous of Liaoning Province. The work on these deposits has really only just begun, but their current impact on the science of paleontology can be gauged by the number of Chinese specimens reported on in such prestigious journals like Science and Nature. Likely they will continue to have a strong influence on our understanding of the history of life for decades.

"So, collaboration with Chinese affords the opportunity to work on a wonderfully diverse and often beautifully preserved collection of fossils," Varricchio continued. "We in the West can provide the growing number of Chinese paleontologists with greater access to analytical technology as well as a more mature perspective on paleontologic methodology reflecting our longer history in the science."

The lead U.S. university in the hot spring study is the University of Nevada Las Vegas. Other participating universities from this country are MSU, the University of Georgia, Miami University in Ohio, Northern Arizona University, Arizona State University, San Francisco State University and Stanford University. The Japanese institutions are Yunnan University, the Institute of Microbiology, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, China University of Geosciences-Beijing and Wuhan, Tongji University and Xiamen University.

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu