Yellowstone’s Surprising Connection to Fighting Coronavirus

A key ingredient for Covid-19 tests was found in the park's hot springs decades ago.

Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone National Park. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

This article was originally published in Montana Pioneer.

The coronavirus pandemic spans the entire globe, but the fight against the deadly virus has a surprisingly direct connection to our region. The standard tests used to screen for Covid-19 rely on a heat-loving microbe discovered in Yellowstone’s thermal pools nearly 50 years ago. The discovery led to what some have described as one of the most important scientific technologies of the twentieth century and revolutionized the biomedical industry.

It’s a fascinating story that illustrates the challenges and opportunities associated with commercializing research conducted in national parks. The Yellowstone microbe eventually sparked a multibillion-dollar industry, yet the park reaped none of the financial benefits. In response, the National Park Service developed a little-known policy that enables parks to benefit from profitable products or technologies developed from research conducted inside their boundaries. The policy could prove to be critically important when the next big discovery occurs in Yellowstone.

The story begins in 1966 when microbiologist Thomas Brock identified the bacterium Thermus aquaticus in the sizzling waters of Yellowstone’s Mushroom Spring. The microbe, known as a thermophile, is one of Yellowstone’s many natural wonders. The tiny, heat-resistant lifeforms thrive in temperatures up to 190 degrees Fahrenheit—far hotter than scientists previously thought was possible to support living organisms. But its ability to withstand extreme conditions is what made Thermus aquaticus so unique and commercially valuable.

Brock’s discovery would later prove to be a crucial ingredient for a process known as polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, which amplifies strands of DNA for analysis and provides a convenient way for scientists to manipulate and study genetic material. The microbe’s heat-loving characteristics vastly improved scientists’ ability to replicate and study DNA. Early PCR methods were problematic because the high temperatures used in the process often destroyed the DNA polymerase needed to rapidly replicate genetic material, which made the process slow and cumbersome.

That changed with the Yellowstone microbe. Two decades after it was found in Yellowstone, scientists isolated an enzyme from the microbe that solved the PCR problem. The Yellowstone enzyme, which thrives in extreme conditions, worked well at high temperatures and eventually enabled the PCR process to flourish. The technique now has wide-ranging commercial applications, including DNA fingerprinting for criminal investigations, cancer research, and the basic laboratory processes used to test for viruses and other infectious diseases. Today, it is the foundation of coronavirus testing.

At the time of its discovery in Yellowstone, neither Brock nor the National Park Service realized how important Thermus aquaticus would be, or how lucrative it would become. The various commercial applications of the PCR process, which was advanced in the 1980s by the biotech company Cetus Corporation, generate revenues of more than $200 million per year, according to some estimates. That success left many people asking whether the national park should share in some of those financial benefits.

Years later, in 1997, when the San Diego-based Diversa Corporation sought to extract microorganisms from Yellowstone’s geysers, the park struck a deal: Diversa would pay the park $20,000 per year in exchange for allowing the company to synthetically reproduce and market an enzyme from the park to oil companies to enhance oil and gas recovery. The deal prompted a lawsuit, which eventually led the National Park Service to develop a formal “benefit-sharing” policy to guide such agreements in the future. The policy, which was finalized in 2010, requires researchers to negotiate benefit-sharing agreements with a national park before commercializing products or technologies resulting from permitted research conducted inside the park. The policy is now the basis of several such agreements in Yellowstone.

If such an agreement had been in place when Thermus aquaticus was discovered, Yellowstone would be sharing in the financial benefits generated from the PCR revolution—possibly to the tune of millions of dollars per year. And those funds would certainly go a long way. Chronic underfunding has left Yellowstone with a deferred maintenance backlog of more than half a billion dollars, part of a $12 billion backlog of needed repairs across the national park system. Park policy requires any funds generated from benefit-sharing agreements must go toward improving conservation and protection of park resources.

Future microbial breakthroughs may well provide significant funding to sustain parks like Yellowstone. Other researchers have identified microbes in the park that may be able to degrade plastics and hydrocarbons. And today one company is developing a protein alternative based on microbes from Yellowstone that may soon appear in meatless burgers and dairy-free cheeses, dips, and yogurt.

Not everyone, however, supports such benefit-sharing agreements. Some think that profiting from such discoveries amounts to commercial exploitation of national parks. Yet, importantly, park policy specifies that only research results can be commercialized—such as genetic information obtained from microbes—not park specimens themselves.

If a commercially successful product is generated from a discovery within a park, it seems reasonable that the park should be able to share in the benefits as well. Former National Park Service director Jonathan Jarvis noted in 2010 that such agreements are “not about commercializing the parks” but are “about the public receiving some benefit from commercial projects that result from analysis of samples collected in national parks.”

As former PERC researcher J. Bishop Grewell has said, “Realistically, any Yellowstone visitor who has bought a moose-head hat, paid a lobster-dinner price for a scoop of ice cream at Old Faithful, or simply paid the park’s entry fee has commercialized Yellowstone.” What matters is not whether a dollar changes hands, but whether doing so benefits parks and the environment. Plus, as one park official told Grewell, “You and I as tourists on the boardwalks probably carry more of these thermophiles home on our sneakers than the researchers take out.”

The lesson is not that every park activity should be commercialized, or that the solution to all of the National Park Service’s financial woes is through money-making contracts with profit-seeking researchers. Rather, it’s that commercial use of park resources is not inherently a bad thing, and when done properly, it can help diversify park funding, support the agency’s mission, and provide important and even life-saving benefits to society—and that’s one way to make “America’s best idea” even better.

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