CHAMPAIGN, Ill. Humans have a penchant for travel driving, sailing and flying over the planet in search of new places to live. So do microbes, say researchers at the University of Illinois who have been studying microbial transport at Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park. "Hot springs comprise a complex ecosystem of interacting microbes, geochemistry and mineralogy," said George Bonheyo, a postdoctoral researcher at the UI. "The rapid precipitation of calcium carbonate results in shifting flows, and in the sealing off of some springs and the eruption of new vents. But the source of the microbes, and the means by which they colonize new springs, has remained unknown."
To study the possible origins of microbial populations, Bonheyo and his colleagues geologist Bruce Fouke, microbiologist Abigail Salyers and students Beth Sanzenbacher and Janki Patel, all of the UI first collect water, rock and air samples from the hot springs environment. Then they use the sensitive polymerase chain reaction to detect the presence of microbes in the samples.
Microbes may roam the Yellowstone countryside by many means, Bonheyo said. They might raft the waters that feed the springs. They might fly on droplets of steam rising from active vents or on bits of sediment blowing from dried springs. They might even hitchhike on the feet of bison, birds or other animals moving from one spring to another.
"Where an established spring runs into a new source, the microbes may be directly transported by the runoff of the older spring," Bonheyo said. "But when a new spring erupts upstream of, or in isolation from other vents, the method of transport is not clear."
For example, during field measurements conducted earlier this year, five new springs erupted at Angel Terrace, a part of the Mammoth Hot Springs complex where the deposition of calcium carbonate occurs very rapidly. Bonheyo monitored the springs to observe the process of microbial colo
Contact: James E. Kloeppel
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign