By Jessianne Wright EBS Contributor
BIG SKY – For debut book author Robert Lindstrom, Yellowstone National Park is as much a preserved ecosystem as it is a living laboratory.
The West Yellowstone resident and former National Park Service research coordinator spent years learning about Yellowstone from some of the premier researchers of the time.
He recalls collecting samples in the ‘90s from mud vents with Karl Stetter and Martin Keller for the biotechnology company Diversa. Researchers from NASA have also spent time in Yellowstone, trying to understand some of the park’s unique lifeforms and predict where life could be found in space.
“They were basically studying astrobiology by looking at what we have here on Earth, because they can study microbes that survive in some of the harshest climates,” Lindstrom said.
And at one point in his career, Lindstrom found himself coordinating up to 60 different projects exploring the uses of microbes, from developing alternative fuels, to dissolving rock for acid leach mining, and cleaning up pollution.
The microbes in question are known as thermophiles, or microorganisms that grow in extreme environments and hot temperatures. These organisms can be found in every hydrothermal feature in Yellowstone and are the cause of Yellowstone’s lauded vibrant colors, as found in Grand Prismatic Spring.
Lindstrom refers to the microbes as “hot water wildlife,” explaining that Yellowstone’s incredible color palate indicates the kind of environment different microbes live in. “Each hot spring is its own ecosystem … [and] has its own habitat and evolution,” he said.
Lindstrom retired from the Park Service in 2009 and decided to gather his notes from years in Yellowstone and piece together a story about bioprospecting in the park. Last year his work came to fruition in the form of the book “Laboratory Yellowstone and the DNA Revolution: A Field Guide to Thermophiles,” published by Lindstrom’s own company, Johnson Creek Publishing.
“It’s a really interesting story of how one of the microbes in the park became worth a billion dollars and won a Nobel prize,” Lindstrom said of the book.
In addition to including the discovery of Thermus aquaticus, the first organism known to science to survive above 72 degrees Celsius, and how the microbe allowed for DNA sequencing, Lindstrom includes a chapter on bison and how the advances in understanding DNA—thanks to Thermus aquaticus—could be used to test for microbial issues like brucellosis, a contagious disease that causes abortion in bison, elk and cattle.
The last half of “Laboratory Yellowstone” is possibly the largest colored field guide to the park’s thermophiles.
To depict some of life’s smallest, most extreme organisms, Lindstrom worked closely with Bozeman photographer Jill Scarson, who also edited and designed the publication. Scarson has been photographing Yellowstone’s thermophiles for more than 10 years. In 2016, a selection from her photography exhibition “Painting with Fire and Ice: The Thermal Features of Yellowstone,” was published in National Geographic’s special Yellowstone edition.
Inspired after working in Yellowstone for two years, Scarson began photographing the park’s microbes. “I wanted to photograph them like any other feature you come to Yellowstone to see, like Hayden Valley, buffalo or wolves,” she said. “Most people would look at me very strange when I was laying on my stomach on the boardwalk for hours.”
To capture many of Scarson’s pieces, she had to use specialized micro equipment and lenses. Most of the shots were captured working in very hot temperatures. Scarson said she wants to make people stop and appreciate the thousands of organisms within one single thermal feature and “give it an artistic twist so that people are drawn into the picture and want to know what they’re looking at.”
Speaking about her work with Lindstrom, Scarson said, “He was really interested in making sure the science was accessible to anyone. … The book is definitely written for anyone to take out on the boardwalks.
“People love the colors of Yellowstone, they should be able to understand what creates them,” she added.
Soon, Lindstrom plans to release the publication as an E-book, which will be searchable and great for people to use while they are out on the boardwalks, he said.
Lindstrom’s “Laboratory Yellowstone” is available at the Book Peddler in West Yellowstone and at the Country Bookshelf in Bozeman. It can also be ordered at Scarson’s website, jscarsonphotography.com/laboratory-yellowstone.