Research: Hydrogen fuels Yellowstone microbes

Posted: Friday, January 28, 2005

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Researchers in Colorado say they have found what fuels microbial dwellers of hot springs in Yellowstone National Park — and it isn't what the rotten-egg smell of the heated pools might suggest.

The team from the University of Colorado at Boulder said the main energy source for microbes is hydrogen — not sulfur.

''You can smell sulfide in the air at Yellowstone, and the accepted idea was that sulfur was the energy source for life in the hot springs,'' said John Spear, lead author of the report published in the online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

But according to the study, sulfide ''seems to play a minor role.'' The researchers say the findings could aid in the understanding of life in other extreme environments, perhaps Mars.

The study, spanning years, was aimed at determining the main source of metabolic energy that drives microbial communities in hot springs over 158 degrees Fahrenheit. Photosynthesis isn't known to occur at temperatures higher than that, they said. The researchers studied microbial ecosystems, and collected from hot springs about as much material as a pencil eraser, as well as sediment.

They reached their conclusion by using such methods as genetic analysis of microbes in the communities, observations of hydrogen levels in hot springs and models based on field data.

Norman Pace, a professor who led the research team, said finding hydrogen as the main energy source was a surprise.

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