Tomorrow/Today: Scientists 'bioprospecting' at Yellowstone
March 20, 1998
Yellowstone National Park
Web posted at: 8:59 p.m. EDT (2059 GMT)
LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- Hot springs and mud pits have long been revered as nature's gifts of health -- sought by everyone from polio sufferers decades ago to beauty-seekers. Now,
researchers say, those same thermal pools may yield a bounty
of biotechnological advances.
Under an agreement with the U.S. Department of Interior,
scientists from Diversa Corp., a San Diego-based
biotechnology company, have been gathering and studying
microbes that thrive in the boiling temperatures and acidic
environments of the hot springs, geysers and boiling mud pits
of Yellowstone National Park.
They hope their work will yield an array of new products,
from cleaning solutions to oil-recovery systems, that would
be safer for the environment than those currently available.
Natural enzymes may be key to cleaner living
Diversa researchers were the first to formalize an agreement
giving Yellowstone a portion of the profits from any
discoveries that are commercialized.
|Jay Short: "We believe we're transforming the way chemicals are made ... "
Molecular biologist Jay Short's team is analyzing and experimenting with enzymes living within the microbes. They hope to use the naturally occurring enzymes as a blueprint to
build manmade molecules with the same properties, he said.
( 169K/14 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)
Manmade enzymes already are key ingredients in many products,
from the sugar in diet soda to the faded effect in
stonewashed jeans, said Diversa chairman and CEO Terrance Bruggeman.
Biologists collect microbes from hot springs
"And when you wash your clothes or dishes, the active
ingredients in those are enzymes take out the fats and oils."
( 155K/14 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)
Biologists believe the Yellowstone enzymes could yield new
fabrics and more effective oil-spill recovery systems. And
because the enzymes come from nature, their disposal would be
less harmful to the environment.
The enzymes may have a medical use as well, Short said, with potential uses ranging from antibiotics to anti-tumor
compounds. ( 160K/13 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)
NASA is studying the Yellowstone springs to prepare for what
they might find in future missions to Mars.
Thermal springs "include the most primitive organisms that we
know about on our own planet," providing a window into the
Earth's early history, explained research scientist Jack Farmer. "We think a very similar thing might have happened on Mars." ( 201K/17 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)
Groups say no one studied deal's impact
No everyone is pleased with the Yellowstone research.
Some environmental groups, fearing the deal will compromise
the park's natural resources, oppose any enzyme-prospecting
deals between Yellowstone and private industry.
Geysers at Yellowstone National Park
After the U.S. government gave Diversa permission in 1997 to
harvest the microbes in return for fees and possible
royalties, Edmonds Institute, a nonprofit ecosystem
protection group in Edmonds, Washington, sued the Interior
Department, claiming U.S. law prohibits the removal of
natural resources from national parks.
Edmonds argued that park managers were ill-equipped to
negotiate a deal, and that no public comment was solicited.
But Yellowstone officials argued that the scientists' work
was not comparable to clear-cutting forests or extracting
other types of resources from the park. Further, they said
they believed companies were smuggling the microbes out of
the park without permission anyway.
Competing firms also see the potential in "bioprospecting,"
and at least one has harvested an enzyme from Yellowstone
that plays a role in the identification of DNA in blood
For Swiss-based pharmaceutical maker Hoffmann-La Roche, the
discovery has been profitable -- the company reaps more than
$100 million a year in revenues from it.
But because the company had no deal with Yellowstone at the
time of the discovery, Hoffmann-La Roche pays no royalties to
Correspondent Greg LaMotte contributed to this report.