Thermophiles: Multitudes In The Hot Spring
by Shelly Pace
Broadcast 11.19 and 11.22.2019

Black Pool at West Thumb Geyser Basin. Photo by Jim Peaco, NPS (public domain).



Perhaps you’ve been lucky enough to enjoy a relaxing soak in one of Montana’s numerous hot springs. Sometimes it’s enough to simply picture yourself there as you watch snow fall beyond the office window or plan your next hiking trip instead of paying attention in class. If you’re like me, when you are fortunate enough to experience those soothing waters instead of just daydreaming about them, you may also wonder, “What else in in here?” The answer is…prokaryotes.

That’s right, I said it: prokaryotes. Prokaryotes, unlike we slightly more complicated and structurally diverse eukaryotes, lack a true, membrane-bound nucleus. Many of these organisms consist of a single cell and are also called microbes. The most well-known prokaryotes are bacteria. We’ve all heard of bacteria and we all wash our hands and don’t eat food that falls on the ground because of them. What many people don’t recognize is that not all bacteria are bad; in fact, many are beneficial and need to be protected. So, although you should enjoy your soak, remember to take care of the hot springs because, as I am going to point out, you are soaking in the past.

Recently, scientists have become interested in archaea, a group of prokaryotes that live in harsh environments where other organisms are not able to survive, such as continental hot springs–like those found in Montana–hydrothermal vents and salt ponds. These organisms are also known as extremophiles, due to the extreme environments they call home. Those that thrive in temperatures above sixty degrees Celsius are better known as thermophiles. Archaea are now believed to be as closely related to eukaryotes, including humans, as they are to bacteria.

Researchers are now testing theories that archaea populate the lowest branches, maybe even the roots, of our phylogenetic family tree. The hydrothermal ecosystems that encompass hot springs are among the oldest continuously-inhabited ecosystems on earth. These environments and the creatures that thrive there need to be protected, for they may tell us invaluable information about evolution and our ancestry.

Need another reason to enjoy your soothing soak? Many of these thermophiles, both bacteria and archaea, have never been identified or tested, and scientists are looking to them as possible cures for disease and illness. Certain strains of bacteria from hot springs in Yellowstone National Park, for example, have shown promise against cancer, and it’s possible that those living in Montana’s hot springs would do the same.

So the next time you take a dip in your local hot springs, remember: you are not alone, and take care. Every environment is sensitive in its own way and needs your cooperation to protect it. Those microscopic bathing buddies tell us a lot about our past, and will say possibly even more about our future. They deserve all the respect we can offer while we are visitors in their homes.


Every week since 1991, Field Notes has inquired about Montana’s natural history. Field Notes are written by naturalists, students, and listeners about the puzzle-tree bark, eagle talons, woolly aphids, and giant puffballs of Western, Central and Southwestern Montana and aired weekly on Montana Public Radio.

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