Created 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.

Mushroom Pool, located in the Lower Geyser Basin of Yellowstone National Park

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.

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.

Online Resources


Additional Resources

For additional resources about Bioprospecting and Microbial Life in Extreme Environments, search the Microbial Life collection.