Skip directly to content

Yellowstone Hot Springs Provide Clues for Defining Microbial Species

NSF Award:

FIBR: Do Species Matter in Microbial Communities?  (Montana State University)

Congressional Districts:
Research Areas:

Biologists have a reasonable understanding of the plant and animal species that comprise the communities that dominate Earth's landscape. Plant and animal species are fundamental, distinct units that determine how communities are assembled, function and respond when the environment changes. In contrast, microbiologists have a poor understanding of what microbial species are, with some suggesting that rampant DNA exchange effectively prevents the formation of species.

A Frontiers in Integrative Biological Research (FIBR) project, led by David Ward at Montana State University has found that individual microorganisms may be grouped into populations that are equivalent to species as we know them for plants and animals. The project is centered at a Yellowstone hot spring microbial mat community that has been studied intensively as a model system to observe principles of microbial community composition, structure and function. Initial microscopic observations appear simple, with a single unicellular cyanobacterium constructing a mat together with a single filamentous bacterium. However, DNA analysis has revealed that there are at least ten distinct cyanobacteria and filamentous bacteria in the mat, each uniquely distributed along temperature, light and chemical gradients and each likely playing a unique ecological role in the community. Initial results have led to the development of new population genetics approaches to describe the distinct, species-like populations (ecotypes) inhabiting the mat. One such technique, a theory-based computerized evolution simulation, models how cyanobacterial genetic diversity arose. These findings may lead to new theories of how genetic exchange has influenced the evolution of cyanobacteria, and whether microorganisms evolve in a fundamentally different way from other organisms.

This project not only incorporates new and innovative research techniques, but also a broad range of outreach activities. Through the development of chapters for Yellowstone's resource guide, wayside signs, electronic fieldtrips, K-12 curricula, and museum exhibits, the project helps on-site and virtual visitors interpret features of the microbial mat community and habitat. This creates a greater appreciation for microorganisms and broadens the understanding that these organisms, though unseen, create and maintain the environments that enable plant and animal life on Earth.


  • Photo of hot spring at Yellowstone National Park
Researchers are studying the genetic diversity of cyanobacteria in hot springs at Yellowstone National Park.
2010 Jupiterimages Corporation
Permission Granted

Recent Award Highlights

native american high-school students attend an accelerated math program

Increasing math competency for Native Americans

Accelerated math program eases transition between high school and college

Research Areas: Education Locations: Montana
researcher on mount everest communicates with montana classrooms via satellite

Students 'climb' Mount Everest

Satellite science promotes K-12 STEM learning

Research Areas: Education Locations: Montana