Looking For Thermal Viruses in Yellowstone National Park

Created by George Rice, Montana State University

Why Viruses in High Temperature Environments

Viruses of Archaeal hyper-thermophiles (temperatures in excess of 80oC) are interesting because they can reveal what kinds of biochemical modifications organisms have undergone to withstand the stresses of surviving in such extreme environments. This is fascinating in terms of basic research, but also particularly relevant to the biotech and manufacturing industries. Proteins and molecular mechanisms that function in harsh environments can be applied to industrial processes that require similar conditions, such as low pH and elevated temperature.

Yellowstone as a Resource

Yellowstone National Park (YNP) has over 10,000 unique geothermal features which contain a wide and varied range of temperature, pH and geochemical profiles. The sheer magnitude of this diversity lends itself to scientific discovery. Mark Young's lab at the Thermal Biology Institute at Montana State University utilized this opportunity for discovery by initiating a search for viruses in the thermal features of the Park. The focus of this investigation was to determine if viruses discovered in other thermal regions of the world could be isolated here, and to isolate new viruses as well (Rice et al. PNAS 2001, Vol. 98, No. 23.)

Experimental Approach

Learn about experimental approach

George Rice checking a thermal pool for temp and pH

Viruses found in Yellowstone

See more virus pictures 

Left:  Transmission Electron Micrograph (TEM) of Sulfolobus Icosahedral Turreted Virus (STIV). Right: The unique lattice of this icosahedral virus is shown superimposed upon a cryoreconstruction.
TEM taken by author, and cryo-reconstruction done by Liand Tang of the Scripps Research Institute.

On the left, a Transmission Electron Micrograph (TEM) is shown of Sulfolobus Icosahedral Turreted Virus (STIV). STIV is one of the newly discovered thermal viruses from YNP. On the right, the unique lattice of this icosahedral virus is shown superimposed upon a cryo reconstruction.

Related Topics and Teaching Activities

Learn about-Are Viruses Alive?- this website, part of MLER, discusses viruses and whether or not they are alive. It includes a link to a Socratic questioning teaching activity.

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