Science and Technology: Does the Public Own Yellowstone's Microbes?


“Does the Public Own Yellowstone’s Microbes?” 

By Robert Ito 


Winter 2002 

For decades, researchers have braved the simmering geothermal springs of Yellowstone National Park looking for hardy, heat-resistant microbes. The “bioprospectors” may be driven by the thrill of intellectual discovery in an area rich with countless tiny life forms. But every year, park officials estimate, U.S. and international companies make billions of dollars by developing the microbes into products—everything from paper bleaches to industrial strength paint removers. In 1966, enzymes plucked from the microbe Thermus aquaticus were used to develop a DNA “fingerprinting” process that now makes $500 million a year. Despite all that money changing hands, Yellowstone—much to the chagrin of the current park administration—has yet to see a dime. 

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Photo: the author and son at Yellowstone, checking out the microbes.