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Tomorrow/Today: Scientists 'bioprospecting' at Yellowstone

Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park  
March 20, 1998
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 ... "
video icon 899K/23 sec./160x120
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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. (icon 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." (icon 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. (icon 160K/13 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

Hot springs
Hot springs  

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." (icon 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 samples.

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 the park.

Correspondent Greg LaMotte contributed to this report.


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