YELLOWSTONE TREASURES: Accompanying travelers to the Park since 2002

Connecting a Hot Spring Microbe and a Criminal Trial

Connecting a Hot Spring Microbe and a Criminal Trial

Thinking my blog followers might like to learn about the interesting connection between a microorganism found in Yellowstone Park and a notorious criminal trial twenty years ago—recent enough that some of you will have followed that trial—I’ll repeat here something I wrote last spring for another website.
– – – – –
One thing leads to another. So let’s play Connect Initials and Years. Specifically, let’s examine how a microbe found in Yellowstone National Park (YNP) related to evidence from a sample of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) in the most famous criminal trial of the late twentieth century.

1966: Indiana University professor Thomas D. Brock (TDB) and undergraduate assistant Hudson Freeze collect a tiny organism from 73ºC Mushroom Pool in YNP. The bacterium, named Thermus aquaticus (TAQ), is subsequently found to thrive in the laboratory even in boiling water and is deposited with the American Type Culture Collection (ATCC).
Brock_MushroomPl [Photo of Brock at Mushroom Pool by Janet Chapple, 1996]

1975 and 1977: Doctor Frederick Sanger of Cambridge University and colleagues publish two papers that made DNA sequencing in the lab much less laborious than it had been previously—and for which he won his second Nobel Prize (in 1980).

1983–84: Researcher Kary Mullis and team at Cetus Corporation, Emeryville, CA, buy a sample of TAQ for thirty-five dollars from the ATCC. From this they purify an enzyme known as Taq polymerase. It proves to be so stable, even when repeatedly heated and cooled, that it can be used to conduct repeated reactions and produce a large amount of DNA from a minuscule example, a technique called a Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR).

For demonstrating this improved PCR technique, Mullis shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Cetus and later their successor company Hoffmann–LaRoche made hundreds of millions of dollars in patent rights and licenses.
Screen Shot 2014-04-14 at 7.58.31 PM [Computer-rendered view of a random DNA double-helix by Geoff Hutchison
From Creative Commons.Freely shared with attribution; no derivatives.
from Creative Commons
]

1986–96: DNA sequencing becomes more and more important in several fields of endeavor, among them archaeological research, proof of paternity, prenatal health, the origins of species—and forensics. DNA evidence was used for the first time in a U.S. criminal court in 1987. However, note here that not until 1996 did the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) announce the reliability of DNA evidence.

1994: A National Institutes of Health (NIH) website points out that “The DNA Identification Act of 1994 authorized the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to expand a pilot project into a national DNA database, the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), as a tool for solving violent crimes.” Thus, this national database had just been authorized in 1994 and was not fully functioning until 1998.

1994–95: Football star O. J. Simpson (OJS) Screen Shot 2014-11-17 at 5.04.52 PM [from Wikipedia Commons, 1990]
is the defendant in a widely televised eleven-month-long trial for the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her companion Ronald Lyle Goldman. The prosecution presented DNA evidence to the jury. However, (quoting the Crime Museum website): “A major hurdle that the prosecution team failed to overcome was the lack of knowledge and understanding regarding forensic science, specifically DNA.” And, “This inability to understand key evidence made the evidence essentially useless; even some seasoned lawyers found the scientific testimonies to be incomprehensible. It is reported that the DNA evidence showed that the chance that some of the blood found near the bodies came from anyone but Simpson was one in 170 million. The chance that blood found on Simpson’s sock could be from someone other than Nicole Brown was one in 21 billion.”
The trial verdict was Not Guilty.
At the time of this high-profile trial even such responsible entities as the NAS and the FBI were unsure or did not yet fully appreciate the implications of DNA evidence. Thus, a murderer was not convicted.

Early 2000s: Taq polymerase becomes only one among a number of DNA polymerases that are used in sequencing reactions.

2014: Twenty years after the OJS trial, would a jury decide differently?

Share Button

Western art in Cody

Just found out via Twitter that the Whitney Western Art Museum of the Buffalo Bill Center for the West in Cody, Wyoming, has recently acquired a new painting by John Mix Stanley. What’s special is that more than 200 of that artist’s works were destroyed in a fire in 1865, so not many survive. Another bit of news is that the museum will gather about 60 works by Stanley for an exhibition called Painted Journeys: The Art of John Mix Stanley, which will open June 6, 2015. If you are interested in American art of the West, make plans to enter or leave Yellowstone Park by the East Entrance this summer!

–posted by Beth Chapple, editor

Share Button

Is It the End of Night for Our National Parks?

“There goes another one!” Joan pointed out, as we lay on our flat porch roof in Billings, Montana, watching the August meteor shower. It was 1947, and in our small town we could see millions of stars and pick out several constellations. Sometimes we could even see the Milky Way.

Now it’s 2014, and even in Yellowstone this past summer, I could barely find the Big Dipper. Was it that our entire atmosphere is polluted, or was there now too much ambient light even at Old Faithful and Mammoth Villages to enjoy the stars?

Listening to a National Public Radio broadcast the other day, I became absorbed in the story of what has happened to the night skies in America in the past few decades. NPR was interviewing author Paul Bogard about his book The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light. Use “Look Inside” for Chapter 9 on the Amazon website for light pollution images, a sample of what’s in the book.

I’m going to have to read this book, since I fully agree with the reviewer Bill McKibben, who wrote on Amazon: “The most precious things in the modern world are probably silence, solitude, and darkness–and of these three rarities, true darkness may be the rarest of all. Many thanks to Paul Bogard for searching out the dark spots and reminding us to celebrate them!”

Take a look at our nugget that includes what the author of a classic Western novel wrote about
experiencing the night.

Share Button

Wolves are “just like us”!

YT174 copy

Yellowstone’s wolves are always in the news. Back in late 2012 the Obama administration lifted federal protection for wolves in Wyoming. In the year following, trophy hunters killed 62 wolves. An unknown number were shot or trapped. Then, on September 13 of this year, federal judge Amy Berman Jackson returned Wyoming wolves to Endangered Species Act protection. Wyoming’s congressional delegation has now pledged to go to Congress in an effort to get wolves again delisted in the state.

As the legislative ping-pong game continues, Doug Smith, Yellowstone wildlife biologist and leader of the Yellowstone Gray Wolf Restoration Project, has fascinating things to say in a 23-minute Iowa Public Radio interview about the history of wolf re-introduction in the park and the present state of wolves.

Tempting you to listen to this excellent interview, I’ll mention a couple of highlights of Doug’s remarks.

Although the next official count will take place in mid winter, current Yellowstone wolf numbers are at approximately 130 wolves in 11 packs.

In discussing the ongoing argument about Canadian wolves being introduced, thus bringing in a different subspecies from those that historically lived in and around Wyoming, Doug explains that over the decades when no wolves lived there, no exchange of genes could take place due to geographic isolation. He states that there are now 5 subspecies in North America, not the many more claimed by some people.

Doug points out that Yellowstone is now returning to “ecological functionality”—big words for the balance achieved in the environment by returning wolves to the park.

He completely empathizes with the ranchers in the ring of land that circles the Greater Yellowstone public land, where wolves now live. Unavoidably, preying on their livestock is a big problem, but ideas to cope with this are multiplying.

Replying to a listener’s question about attacks on humans, he stresses that wolves are afraid of humans and/or “can’t figure us out because we walk on two legs.” He suggests that the big, bad wolf stories may be based on some historical attacks but could well have been referring to rabid wolves.

Doug will be giving a talk at Iowa State University’s Memorial Union, 8:00 pm on Monday, November 3. In his interview he lists an impressive list of human traits found in wolves: they are monogamous, good parents, territorial, and communicate by body postures and many quiet vocalizations—as well as howling. And he concludes, “They’re just like us!”

Share Button

Roads closing for winter break in Yellowstone

All Yellowstone Park roads except the all-weather road between Gardiner and Cooke City in the northern part of the park will close Monday, November 3, 2014, at 8:00 am. And just in time, too: On Sunday and Monday, October 26 and 27, there was up to one foot of snow in some places and a few drivers were stranded until snowplows could reach them. A dusting of snow remained at Old Faithful in late afternoon on Tuesday (10/28), as I just saw on the Old Faithful streaming webcam.

December 15th will be the day most roads will be ready for snowcoaches and snowmobiles.

Share Button

You could ski in Yellowstone Park this winter!

As the leaves begin to turn and we begin to think ahead to the holidays, it’s also time to plan that Yellowstone winter trip you’ve been hoping to take. Having been lucky enough to visit four times in the winter, I can tell you there is nothing like it in the world!

To whet your appetite, here’s a paragraph from a historic winter wonderland story that dates back to the bitterly cold February of 1887, when there was no hotel at Old Faithful. The story tells of Yellowstone Park guide and intrepid skier Billy Hofer’s experiences in the Old Faithful area as he skied around the park on a wildlife-counting tour for Forest and Stream magazine. What Hofer calls “shoes” are the 9-foot-long skis he made for himself.

Hofer wrote: “The morning of the 21st [of February] . . . I visited the whole of the Upper Geyser Basin, going out past the Castle to Iron Creek, which was open, crossing it twice on a snow bridge without getting off our shoes. Along this stream down to the Specimen Lake and Black Sand Geyser there were many bare spots with bright green grasses, and several water plants growing in the warm water and earth, some even showing flower buds. The bright green mosses and plants looked doubly green beside the white snow. All along this creek was to be seen the usual number of ice forms. One in particular was very life-like. It looked like an Esquimau, dressed in white bear robes, with a bundle of sticks in his arms. He had a woe-begone expression on his face, as though in trouble because he had so little wood.”

Happy skiing (or snowshoeing)!
On snowshoes by the Firehole River

Share Button

Announcing the Visiting Geyserland e-book

Janet Chapple’s new e-book of geyser basin walking tours of Yellowstone National Park is now available from Amazon, Apple iTunes, Barnes & Noble, eBooks.com, and more . . .

Share Button

Morning Glory Pool—Queen of Yellowstone’s Beautiful Hot Springs

If Old Faithful is historically the world’s most famous geyser, then Morning Glory Pool is surely the park’s most famous hot spring. This has been the case for almost the entire history of Yellowstone Park. But, like all Yellowstone thermal features, Morning Glory has not stayed the same.

The Grand Loop Road, that famous figure-eight-shaped main road in the park, went within a few yards of Morning Glory Pool (and also of Old Faithful Geyser) until the road’s rerouting in 1969. This proximity to Morning Glory helps explain the pool’s early popularity and also its appeal to vandals.

At the time it was named, probably in 1883, the name Morning Glory was entirely appropriate, since it was named for the common garden flower. Its shape was a perfect funnel and its water was a super-clear pale blue color. Early writers called it “a cerulean jewel” and its water “of the loveliest, clearest robin’s egg blue.” The color was due to a water temperature too high for the growth of bacteria or algae, even near the edge.

Morning Glory was surrounded by a border of scalloped geyserite as much as 10 inches wide and 5 inches high. Souvenir hunters had managed to remove every bit of this border before Jack Haynes photographed this view of the pool.
MorningGlory_Pool
From the first half of the 1900s

As more and more tourists passed by closely on the road, many of them also seemed to find it irresistible to throw things in. The pool’s only known natural eruption occurred in 1944, but in 1950 an eruption was induced in order to clean out the vent. Rangers found $86.27 in pennies, other coins, clothing that included 76 handkerchiefs and “delicate items of underclothing,” and items as large as logs, according to T. Scott Bryan’s The Geysers of Yellowstone.

By mid century, due to all the vandalism and consequent lowering of the temperature, concentric rings of bright yellow and orange bacteria and algae grew around the blue center, to the point where the name is now not really appropriate.

Since the 1970s the road has become an asphalt path for bicyclists and pedestrians. Although most visitors today observe the rules and have the good sense not to throw things into hot springs, cleaning out Morning Glory Pool is still needed from time to time. The temperature also may vary from natural causes, and the colors vary as a result, as you can see from pictures of the pool in successive decades taken by my friend and colleague Suzanne Cane.
SC_0195_Morning Glory Pool in 2003
2003

SC_0193_Morning Glory Pool
2013

Contemplating Morning Glory Pool has inspired me to create a list of my favorite 20 easily found hot springs in Yellowstone. They occur in numerous other areas besides Upper Geyser Basin, where Morning Glory is located. I revisit most of them every time I visit the park. You can find some of them described and pictured in five of the Nuggets on this website, such as in the Itinerary for a family trip nugget or the one about West Thumb Geyser Basin. And gorgeous Crested Pool appears on the cover of our new Visiting Geyserland e-book. I’ll write about some other favorites in the months to come—it will be a delightful memory trip for my off-season months!

Share Button

What’s the most remote part of Yellowstone Park?

Rebecca and Ryan Means from Florida are gradually fulfilling an unusual goal. They’re hiking “on a quest to identify and visit the most remote locations in each of the 50 states.”

Not just enjoying the out-of-doors far from civilization, they have a mission. The essence of their philosophy is shown in Ryan Means’ answer to a comment last year on his website, remotefootprints.org: “The conservation problem arises when loud, fuel consumptive, destructive, motorized vehicles enter wildlands. The landscape gets scarred. Habitat and wilderness character get lost. Another roadless wildland gets fragmented. Then development usually follows. We are basically calling for an end to the era of road building (and sprawling development) in our great country, especially in public lands.”

They hike carrying heavy packs—Rebecca’s includes a carrier for five-year-old Skyla. So far they have written up their visits to remote spots in 23 states. They don’t always find solitude, but they do get far away from roads and navigable rivers. They especially loved Wyoming’s most remote spot, the Thorofare corner of Yellowstone, 21.6 miles by their reckoning from the nearest road, even farther by trail. The Means’s experiences on this trip have not yet appeared on their website, but their trip was mentioned on October 4, 2014 in the Rapid City (SD) Journal.

Reading this, I thought of one of the selections in my upcoming book (with the working title, Magnificent Playground: Early Yellowstone in Words and Watercolors). I was reminded of Barton Evermann’s 1891 commission to find how trout got into Yellowstone Lake. He visited and carefully described a phenomenal place called Two-Ocean Pass, just south of the Thorofare and the park’s border.

My own related delight is in finding places—even in the hills just above my noisy downtown Oakland—where stopping on a trail you hear no sound, unless it’s a distant bird or a trickling stream. It clears the head. And there are so many such places to be found in Yellowstone. . . .

Share Button

Heads Up: Free Park Admission

park entrance sign

As you enter the park heading south on U.S. 191, you are greeted by this sign and Black Butte.

This Saturday, September 27, 2014, is National Public Lands Day. That means that not only the U.S. national parks, but also lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service waive their fees to visitors so you can get out and appreciate the beauty of our parks and refuges for free.

Not only are fees waived, but thousands of volunteers help out on this day every year. According to the National Public Lands Day website:

In 2013, about 175,000 volunteers worked at 2,237 sites in every state, the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico.
NPLD volunteers:

  • Collected an estimated 23,000 pounds of invasive plants
  • Built and maintained an estimated 1,500 miles of trails
  • Planted an estimated 100,000 trees, shrubs and other native plants
  • Removed an estimated 500 tons of trash from trails and other places
  • Contributed an estimated $18 million through volunteer services to improve public lands across the country

The photo above, taken by Leslie Kilduff, can be found on page 33 of the guidebook’s fourth edition.

Three cheers for volunteers! And enjoy your Saturday in a park or refuge.
—Beth, editor of Yellowstone Treasures

Share Button