BioprospectingCreated by Heather Beal, Montana State University
Bioprospecting is the search for useful organic compounds in nature, commonly involving the collection and examination of biological samples (plants, animals, microoganisms) for sources of genetic or biochemical resources.
Bioprospecting in Yellowstone
Bioprospecting has been conducted for centuries, but in recent decades the field has grown rapidly with the discovery of extremophiles and the subsequent technological advances in the pharmaceutical, biotechology, and agricultural sectors. The thermophile (exteme heat-loving microbes) Thermus aquaticus was first discovered in the Mushroom Pool of Lower Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park by Thomas Brock in 1966. The discovery of T. aquaticus led to scientific and economic benefits far beyond what anyone would have imagined.
An enzyme of T. aquaticus, called Taq polymerase, was found to be capable of surviving intense heat and allowed scientists to make billions of copies of DNA in a few hours through a process called the polymerase chain reaction (PCR). PCR can be used to amplify any type of DNA and in turn has contributed significantly to DNA fingerprinting, disease diagnostics, and forensic analysis, earning millions for the patent holder. Much of modern biotechnology is based on the use of enzyme catalysts for biochemical reactions, including genetic engineering, fermentation, and bioproduction of antibiotics. In addition to T. aquaticus, bioprospecting has yielded other microbes that prove useful in biotechnology such as in producing ethanol, treating agricultural food waste, bioremediating chlorinated hydrocarbons, recovering oil, biobleaching paper pulp, improving animal feed, increasing juice yield from fruits, improving detergents, and a host of other processes.
Global Bioprospecting and Benefits-Sharing Agreements
Bioprospecting has expanded to geothermal features across the world, where thermophiles have been found colonizing the thermal waters. Areas such as New Zealand, Costa Rica, Iceland, Japan, and Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula as well as ocean floor thermal vents known as black smokers are explored for potentially useful microorganisms. After the discovery of T. aquaticus in Yellowstone and the development of PCR had resulted in a multi-million dollar business, the issue of benefits-sharing agreements for future bioprospecting in Yellowstone came to the forefront. Federal legislation authorizes the NPS to negotiate agreements that would provide parks a reasonable share of profits when park-based research yields something of commercial value. In 1997, Yellowstone became the first national park to enter a Cooperative Research and Agreement (CRADA) with the Diversa Corporation, the first ever negotiated in the United States. Diversa collects DNA from hydrothermal habitats and screens the genes for the ability to produce useful compounds. Other Diversa research sites include Costa Rica, Iceland, Antarctica, and at the bottom of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
The Benefits-sharing agreements in Yellowstone allow the park to collaborate with researchers and receive equitable benefits, such as equipment, training, or funding for conservation projects, when research on biological material from the park returns commercially successful inventions. Benefits-sharing agreements are increasingly used in other countries to protect biodiversity by allowing the host nation to benefit from commercial discoveries that depended on its national parks and other protected areas.
- Park Issues: Bioprospecting and Benefits Sharing (more info) : This website contains chapter nine of the "Yellowstone Resources and Issues Handbook 2004" entitled "Park Issues." The document focuses on a variety of issues in Yellowstone National Park including bioprospecting and benefits-sharing, bison management...(more info)
- Forecast: Hot and Humid (more info) : This webiste is part of a larger series of ten websites focusing on organisms living in interesting and extreme habitats. This particular page contains an article discussing the discovery of thermophiles in Yellowstone National Park and their increasing importance in the research world...(more info)
- Benefits-Sharing Case Study- Yellowstone National Park and the Diversa Corporation (more info) : This case study gives an in depth overview of the Yellowstone National Park and Diversa Corporation "Cooperative Research and Development Agreements" (CRADA)...(more info)
- The Yellowstone Thermophiles Conservation Project ( This site may be offline. ) : This website is dedicated to a project developed by the Yellowstone Center for Resources, US National Park Service, and World Foundation for Environment and Development (WFED) for research and conservation of the Yellowstone National Park thermophile resources...(more info)
- Yellowstone Investigates Access and Property Rights to Genetic Resources ( This site may be offline. ) : This website contains a journal article written by Bob Lindstrom, published in "Park Science." The article is based on a scientific conference sponsored by the U.S.D.A. Agricultural Research Service entitled "Global Genetic Resources-Access, Ownership, and Intellectual Property Rights"...(more info)
- Yellowstone Signs Historic Bioprospecting Agreement ( This site may be offline. ) : This website features an issue of the newsletter "Biodiversity" from the Consultive Group on Biological Diversity (CGBD). The issue contains an article discussing the history of bioprospecting in Yellowstone National Park and the benefits-sharing agreement...(more info)
- Thermophiles (more info) : This official site of Yellowstone National Park contains information on thermophiles as a part of the "Nature in Yellowstone" home page. Specific topics covered include the history of thermophile research in Yellowstone National Park and future research plans including the "Yellowstone Thermophiles Conservation Project"...(more info)
- Microscopic Wildlife in Yellowstone National Park (more info) : This site contains an article from Yellowstone Geographic focusing on Yellowstone National Park's thermophiles and their geothermal habitat. The article discusses the discovery of thermophiles in Yellowstone and the history of bioprospecting in Yellowstone as well as bioprospecting in other geothermal areas around the world...(more info)
For additional resources about Bioprospecting and Microbial Life in Extreme Environments, search the Microbial Life collection.