Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Artistry of Thermophiles

After watching Old Faithful erupt, we began our hike in the Upper Geyser Basin of Yellowstone NP.

Several people from the crowd at Old Faithful had the same idea for an afternoon hike. We later learned that this 1.5 mile hike is the most heavily used trail in the park.

We crossed a beautiful section of the Firehole River, and the scenery changed abruptly.

Ahead of us lay what appeared to be an artist's canvas. The "artists" working on this canvas are the inhabitants of Yellowstone's geothermal features. Yellowstone holds the world’s most diverse collection of geysers, hot springs, mud pots, thermal pools, and fumaroles. Combined, there are more than 10,000 thermal features within Yellowstone’s boundaries. This natural wonderland contains more geothermal features than any place on earth.

The ribbons of color in and around the thermal features along the boardwalk trail are usually formed by thermophiles (heat-loving organisms).

These organisms--algae, bacteria, and Archaea--are primitive life forms that have inhabited the earth for almost four billion years.

Cyanobacteria, which are common in the Old Faithful area, thrive in temperaturs up to 163° F. Other thermophiles exist in even hoter water.

The landscape of the travertine terraces changes daily, along with the colors of these stone waterfalls. The beautiful colors of pink, green, brown, yellow, and orange are caused by the bacteria and other organisms living on the rock.

As we walked among these hot springs, the abstract designs created by the flow of the water and thermophiles drew our attention.

But it is their contribution to science that may have a major impact in several disciplines. Some examples are: scientists hope to treat breast cancer by having viruses engineered to carry chemotheraphy drugs and magnetic materials to diseased cells, allowing doctors to treat a patient and even track their progress through magnetic resonance imaging.

Another recent discovery revolves around plants that live near Yellowstone's hot springs, where flora typically can't exist. The secret lies in yet another microbe: a fungus that confers heat tolerance to the plants. If scientists can find a way to take this fungus and inoculate, say, wheat crops, farmers could produce food in conditions where crops normally can't grow--in drought, hot climates. Enzymes from other microbes could ferment plant cells into "gasohol," an alternative fuel source. Others break down the components of used tires, or gobble up chemicals in toxic environments like old mines and pulp mills.

The colors of Depression Geyser,

Heart Hot Spring, and

this hot spring add considerable beauty to the grayish volcanic surface.

Midway around the loop, we noticed Castle Geyser erupting. This was a lucky break for us, because this geyser erupts only every 11-12 hours and the ranger station did not have an estimated time for the next eruption.

The buffalo strolled into the scene at just the right time.

Even though we wanted to hurry to reach the geyser, we stopped to take photographs of the geyser on our route to its site.

We later learned that the water phase of an eruption lasts about 15 minutes and a steam phase, similar to a steam locomotive, lasts an additional 45 minutes.

Members of the 1870 Langford-Doane Expedition named this feature for the "resemblance to the ruins of an old castle."

At the surface, silica-laden waters form a rock called geyserite, or sinter, creating the massive geyser cones; the scalloped edges of hot springs; and the expansive, light-colored, barren landscape characteristic of geyser basins.

The large sinter cone is nearly 12 feet high with a diameter of 20 feet at the top.

We felt fortunate to have been able to arrive at Castle Geyser while the steam phase was still present.

And fortunate to have seen some of the colorful works of the thermophiles.

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