Researchers who study the wilderness of heat-loving bacteria that thrives in Yellowstone's hot springs are starting to pay more attention to the even smaller organisms that keep those bacteria populations in check: viruses.
A study by researchers at Montana State University and the Idaho National Laboratory concludes that certain viruses appear to migrate around Yellowstone on steam droplets.
"To me, the big question is what do these viruses do in these hot springs?" said Frank Roberto, a microbiologist at the Idaho National Laboratory who sequenced and analyzed the DNA of Yellowstone viruses.
The findings are expected to be published soon in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Researchers have been eager to find industrial uses for Yellowstone's bacteria. Cleaning smokestacks at coal-fired power plants is one possible application.
But to do that sort of thing, scientists are discovering that the relationships between hot springs bacteria and the viruses that infect them could be very important.
Over two years, the researchers sampled viruses in three hot springs, one near Norris Geyser Basin, another near the Mud Volcano and a third between Midway Geyser Basin and Old Faithful.
The researchers theorized that viruses are wafted by steam and could survive trips of several miles before finding a new home. Once there, they would infect new microbial hosts and transfer genetic information that could affect the lives of the bacteria.
"It's really a mystery how these viruses could have evolved if they can't survive in hot pools by themselves," Roberto said. "To reproduce, these viruses need to leave their hosts. Then they're entering a really hostile environment."
The scientists did some experiments and discovered that viruses can indeed travel by steam, much like how influenza spreads when people sneeze.
But Roberto said the study may raise more questions than it answers. The viruses may be capable of infecting a wider range of microbes than is now known.
"We're in uncharted territory in terms of understanding how these viruses impact the ecosystem of these pools," Roberto said.