Sometime in the coming weeks, biological prospectors will enter the ethereal geyser fields of Yellowstone National Park, toting aspirations of striking it rich on organisms invisible to the naked eye.
Although the scientists - employees of Diversa Corp. - will extract barely a few tablespoons' full of water from the famous bubbling hot pools, they will be stepping into history.
A landmark agreement, inked earlier this month between the Yellowstone and the San Diego-based biotechnical firm, signals a new era of "bioprospecting" on public lands and creates a template for how to share the royalties.
The neoprene-clad prospectors will be hunting for tiny heat-loving organisms that produce unique enzymes. Already, such microbial wonders have proven useful in everything from solving crimes to cleaning dirty laundry
The deal, announced at a ceremony commemorating the park's 125th birthday, also appears to confirm what conservationists have long argued: That the wisdom of protecting nature is best left for future generations to interpret.
"So often the opponents of preservation portray it as a lock up of real estate or an attempt to close down opportunities," says John Varley, Yellowstone's research chief. "But here in the country's oldest national park we have been preserving Yellowstone's thermal features since 1872, and only now are we beginning to fully appreciate their value."
For years, international bioprospecting firms have focused their attention largely on tropical rain forests. But now experts say the estimated 10,000 geysers, hot springs, mud pots, and steam vents here may harbor an equally impressive array of natural capital. "National parks by their nature are repositories of diversity, which makes them outstanding laboratories for the biotech industry," Mr. Varley says.
This interest in tapping the commercial potential of Yellowstone's thermal life has its roots in the discovery of Thermus aquaticus, discovered by Thomas Brock in the mid-1960s. Using an enzyme produced by the microbe, Kerry Mullis subsequently invented the process of DNA fingerprinting that is used today in everything from convicting criminals to diagnosing diseases.
Mr. Mullis won a Nobel Prize in 1993 and a patent on the process has yielded millions of dollars in spin-off technology - but Yellowstone has not collected a cent.
In addition to DNA fingerprinting, other scientists have harvested microbial enzymes to improve a wide range of products and processes, from fermenting wine and aging cheese to making better laundry detergents and bleaching pulp to make paper without using chlorine.
Worldwide, about 5,000 thermal microbes have been cataloged to date. In a typical tablespoon of water lifted out of a Yellowstone hot spring, there are between 10,000 and 14,000 organisms never before seen. "For its biological diversity and potential discoveries, we're talking about orders of magnitude greater than what we've found elsewhere," says Terrance Bruggeman, Diversa's chairman. "Within 10 feet of each other you can find geothermal features where the water temperature, pH, and variety of microorganisms are distinctly different."
Varley says the park's boiling pools may hold answers to deeper philosophical questions such as the origin of life on Earth. "There is a group of scientists worldwide who believe life originated in a hot spring," Varley explains. "They make a persuasive case for this primordial soup having all the building blocks of life but lacking a spark. We know that electricity comes out of the sky and that may be all it took."
COMPARED with traditional forms of resource extraction such as logging and mining, bioprospecting is almost unnoticeable. The average backpacker will leave the park with more soil in the soles of his hiking boots than these researchers will take back to the lab for analysis, Varley notes.
Under the terms of the pact, Yellowstone will receive $35,000 a year for five years and a royalty of up to 10 percent on products developed from park resources. Diversa's arrangement is nonexclusive, and presently three other companies are negotiating for a similar contract. Before he retired this spring, Park Service Director Roger Kennedy instructed Varley to draft guidelines that could be applied to other national parks such as Carlsbad Caverns where biotech companies have also expressed interest in developing park resources.
Conservation groups say that this agreement may prompt a renewed push for a permanent ban on geothermal development in Yellowstone. Nine of the largest geyser fields worldwide have been developed as energy sources. Scientists say that Yellowstone holds the greatest concentration of undisturbed thermal phenomena only because it has been spared from drilling. But proposals to commercially harness the region's wealth of naturally occurring steam and hot water continue to surface.
"There need to be stronger safeguards in place," says Robert Ekey, spokesman for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. "As the biotech industry explodes and new discoveries are made, the dividends of protection become more compelling."