Looking down into a steaming caldron of water, or the mouth of a geyser, it is inconceivable that life could survive there. Still, scientists have discovered microscopic organisms living in the incredibly hot an inhospitable environments of boiling springs, geysers and steam vents on the ocean floor called “black smokers.” The tiny, heat-tolerant (thermophilic) organisms are so small that 500 or more of them could be placed end to end on the head of a pencil.
Some of these one-celled life forms have become the basis of multi-million dollar industries. Microbiologists have learned that the organisms thriving in Yellowstone National Park’s thermal features contain compounds that are stable in extreme temperatures. An enzyme from the aptly named bacterium Thermus aquaticus has been widely used in medical diagnosis and forensic science.
Several other significant industrial applications require heat-stable enzymes extracted from microbes living in Yellowstone’s thermal basins. One organism, Thermoanaerobacter ethanolicus produces enzymes that help convert cellulose from waste products into ethanol, an energy-efficient and environmentally benign alternative fuel.
In our preoccupation with Nature’s large and spectacular works, we need to remember that the small and obscure things in our world are important too. Even in extreme environments tiny life forms, which we cannot see with our naked eyes, abide.