Biotech Firm Wades into Yellowstone's Hot Springs

Prospectors are lining up to exploit the famous hot springs of Yellowstone National Park--not for minerals, but for the rugged microbes they contain, called thermophiles. Yesterday, while Vice President Al Gore presided over Yellowstone's 125th birthday, U.S. National Park Service officials signed a pioneering contract that formally opens up the hot springs to bioentrepreneurs.

The initial agreement gives San Diego-based Diversa Corp. the right to commercialize thermophiles collected in the park in exchange for $175,000, plus a share of the profits, paid to the government over 5 years. Park Superintendent Michael Finley says deals like this will bring financial dividends and increase knowledge of the park's tiniest inhabitants. "One good way to protect something," adds Diversa molecular biologist Eric Mathur, "is to show it has value."

But others are seeking to block such deals. Two groups opposed to the commercialization of living things have threatened to sue the Park Service for selling public resources. "These are business deals they're making, and the product is something that belongs to the people of this nation," said Beth Burrows of The Edmonds Institute. Along with another group, the institute petitioned Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to halt collection of microorganisms and conduct a public review. Says Burrows: "We didn't preserve Yellowstone for corporate purposes."

Thermophiles were unknown when Yellowstone was established in 1872, but today they mean potentially big money to companies such as Diversa, which hopes to find new enzymes to supplant chemical catalysts. (Thermus aquaticus, discovered at Yellowstone prior to bioprospecting rules, produces a heat-stable enzyme sold widely for use in DNA studies.) Other companies hope to get similar access soon to Yellowstone's hot springs and geysers.