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New Research on Yellowstone Microbes Could Shed Light on Origin of Life

New research published by microbiologists with Montana State University (MSU) on Yellowstone microbes may shed light on the origin of life.

Specifically, the discovery may prove crucial insights into the evolution of archaeal (microbial) life and the role iron plays in early life.

According to MSU News Service, Professor William Inskeep and his team of researchers published their findings May 14 in the Nature Microbiology Journal. Analyzing microbes taken from thermal features in Yellowstone National Park, the team isolated a new lineage of archaea. The team added that the discovery is doubly exciting, due to the unique conditions (high heat, high acidity) Yellowstone microbes have to survive. From MSU News Service:

“The discovery of archaeal lineages is critical to our understanding of the universal tree of life and evolutionary history of the Earth,” the group wrote. “Geochemically diverse thermal environments in Yellowstone National Park provide unprecedented opportunities for studying archaea in habitats that may represent analogues of early Earth.”

Archaea is one of the three domains of life, the others being bacteria and eukaryotes. Like bacteria, archaea are single-cell organisms. The eukaryote domain contains more cellularly complex organisms, such as humans, other animals, plants and fungi.

The scientists called the new archaeal lineage Marsarchaeota after Mars, the red planet, because these organisms thrive in habitats containing iron oxides. Within Marsarchaeota, they discovered two main subgroups that live throughout Yellowstone and thrive in hot, acidic water where iron oxide is the main mineral. One subgroup lives in water above 122 degrees Fahrenheit, and the other lives in water above 140 to 176 degrees. The water is about as acidic as grapefruit juice. Their microbial mats are red because of the iron oxide.

“It’s interesting that the habitat of these organisms contains (iron) minerals similar to those found on the surface of Mars,” Inskeep said.

He added that microbes produce iron oxide, but the Marsarchaeota do not. They might be involved in reducing iron into a simpler form, “which is important from an early Earth standpoint. Iron cycling has been implicated as being extremely important in early Earth conditions.”

Inskeep says the discovery has more immediate ramifications beyond the origin of life. The discovery also sheds light on high-temperature biology and complements existing research on the subject.

Yellowstone National Park is a hotspot for microbial research, with both universities and private firms seeking specimens.
According to MSU News Service, the team that wrote and published this paper came from all over the country, but many have close ties to MSU:

The lead authors of the Nature Microbiology paper earned their doctorates at MSU and were part of NSF’s Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program while at MSU. Zackary Jay is now a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering in the Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering and the Center for Biofilm Engineering at MSU. Jacob Beam is now a postdoctoral researcher at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences at East Boothbay, Maine.

“In the end, after many years of work, it’s exciting, and a relief, to have our team’s work recognized and published, particularly in a high impact journal,” Jay said.

Other co-authors were Mensur Dlakic from MSU’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology in the College of Letters and Science and College of Agriculture; Douglas Rusch from the Center for Bioinformatics at Indiana University; and Mark Kozubal from the Thermal Biology Institute, MSU’s Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences, and Sustainable Bioproducts in Bozeman.

In addition, according to MSU News Service, this particular research project was a collaboration between the Thermal Biology Institute, the Montana Agricultural Experiment Station, and the Yellowstone Center for Resources.

This story has been updated with additional information.

About Sean Reichard

Sean Reichard is the editor of Yellowstone Insider and author of Yellowstone Insider For Families 2017.

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