- Episode 2
- Extremophile Questions among the Paintpots
- Mort and Agnes thought that visiting the paintpots next would be a good way to let the twins explore nature’s wonders up close, since Old Faithful’s steamy energy built up from ‘way beneath the earth required a respectful distance. They could walk the half-mile nature trail around the paintpots (or mudpots, as the less-colorful ones were called).
- So everyone got in the car to drive the 8 miles between Old Faithful and the area with the paintpots. There would be a lot for the twins to explore and discover in a more-active way and perhaps they’d use up some of that early morning energy, thought Agnes and Mort.
- The twins were quiet on the way, but clambered out of the car as soon as the engine was turned off. Their parents were relieved at the twins’ excitement, as they usually had to remind their children to keep their voices down during a car ride.
- When Mal and Mel were both out of their parents’ hearing range, Mal whispered to Mel, “Did you hear what dad said about extremophiles? Mel, maybe you’re an extremophile!”
- At that point Mort and Agnes reached them, so Mel said nothing in reply.
- The family wandered among the bubbling and burping mud pots, paint pots and mini-geysers. Mel wanted to reach in to feel how hot they were, but her watchful parents made very clear that she would not conduct that particular experiment.
- “Remember, I told you that the heat would probably melt your paint brush. What do you think would happen to your hand?” Mort questioned. “I dunno…ok, I won’t try it,” Mel promised when she saw the stern look on her father’s face.
- When it came time for lunch, the twins badgered their parents for information on extremophiles. How big were these micro-things? What do they eat? Is their skin so thick or so hard that the heat or chemicals didn’t hurt them? How? Why? Where?
- So many questions… neither Alice nor Mort could begin to answer them adequately, especially since they didn’t know much themselves about extremophiles. That’s good, both parents thought. Dad (Mike) was right. A trip like this is certainly broadening, and not just for the twins. “Let’s go to the Old Faithful Visitor Center and ask if there are any park rangers or others we can talk with about extremophiles while we’re here. If not, we can do some research once we get back home,” Agnes suggested, wondering if the twins would even remember the word “extremophile” once they left the park the following evening.
- “Don’t forget,” Mort reminded the twins, “Grandpa Mike thought it would be a good idea for you to write down what you did during this trip so you don’t forget the important parts. I’ll bet he’ll be really happy to hear all about it when we see him next week.”
- Some Questions Answered
- The Maloneys returned to the Old Faithful Visitor Center in mid-afternoon; the attendant told them that an extremophile scientist was visiting a location in the park nearby and could easily be paged. “That would be great, even if we were able to talk for just a few minutes,” said Mort.
- The scientist was waiting for them on the benches facing Old Faithful when the Maloney family walked over from the Visitor Center. “I’m very happy to meet you. Young children are usually fascinated by Old Faithful’s great show of power, but I’ve never encountered any who are interested in the tiny living things that survive its great heat. I’ll try to answer your questions.” After brief introductions “How can they live where nothing else can?” both twins asked at the same time.
- “Well,“ said the scientist, “it depends on what kind of extreme you’re talking about.” First of all, there are a lot of different extreme conditions, not only very hot but also very cold, salty, sugary or other places that are dangerous to most living things, but not all living things. Here, where it is very hot, these thermophiles (thermophiles are extremophiles that live in hot conditions) have a special kind of protein that doesn’t change with heat. You know how your mom makes scrambled eggs? The scrambling happens when heat changes the egg’s protein.”
- “How big are these thermophiles”? Mal asked, thinking about his sister.
- “Oh, they are very small,” the scientist answered. “You would need a microscope to see them. It’s only because there are so many of them that you can see them at all. Have you been to see the paint pots?”
- "Yes,” Agnes replied. “Earlier this afternoon we took a drive and had fun walking around the Fountain Paint Pot trail. “
- "That’s a good beginning. Will you still be here tomorrow? I’m planning on going to Octopus Springs and I’d be happy to show you some really pretty pink, green and even black bacteria.”
- Mort and Agnes expressed their concern. “That’s very kind of you, but we don’t want to interrupt your work.”
- “Not at all,” replied Dr. Ethyl A. Shun. “I’m delighted to encourage the youngsters’ interest in biology.”
- Of course the youngsters, Mal and Mel, were a bit confused when Dr. Ethyl told them that extremophiles were very tiny. So Mel couldn’t possibly be an extremophile, could she?
- Colors of Octopus Springs
- The Maloneys met Dr. Ethyl at Octopus Springs after church Sunday morning; she explained that it got its name because the water channels flowing away from the spring look like the arms of an octopus.
- “This area produces a large variety of unusual micro-organisms (or microbes, for short) because the water temperatures go from nearly boiling at the spring itself and then cools as it flows away from the spring to about the temperature of the coffee that your parents drink. The pH of the water changes too, depending on the minerals that are dissolved in it, and there are different microbes at different pH levels.”
- “What’s pH?” the twins wanted to know.
- “pH is a little difficult to understand, but you can think of it as a scale, just like temperature is a scale. Pure water is in the middle of the scale at a pH of 7; the orange juice you drink is on the ACID side of the scale at about 3.5. Most beverages are on the acid side of the pH scale. Many soaps and cleaning materials such as ammonia are on the BASIC or alkaline side of the scale, at a pH of 10 or 11. But you can ask your mom and dad to explain more about these things later.”
- “I like the pink,” said Mel. “And I think the green and black are really neat,” said Mal.
- “ The pink microbes are called ‘Aquifex aeolicus’ and they can live in water that is very close to boiling. What’s really interesting about them is that they eat hydrogen and need only a very small amount of oxygen to survive. Some companies are using these microbes to improve papermaking and even some foods,” the scientist explained.
- “They’re so pretty. I’ll bet they can do lots of things,” said Mel.
- “What about these green ones?” Mal asked.
- “Ah, these are really special,” said Dr. Ethyl. “They are a type of cyanobacteria – cyan from the Greek word meaning ‘greenish-blue’ – called Synechococcus. They live in only slightly-cooler conditions than the pink ones, but they have some very special powers. During the daytime, they use light to produce energy, just as plant leaves do. But at night, they start converting the nitrogen gas that is in the air into nitrogen compounds such as proteins that are needed to live. They do this by switching different genes on and off.”
- And so it went for several hours until it was nearly time to leave for the airport, with the Maloneys asking questions and Dr. Ethyl responding. They learned that extremophiles are found in many “extreme” enviroments, including the incredibly frigid conditions in Antarctica. Remarkably, both the children and the adults were intrigued with the information she shared with them, each absorbing scientific facts and becoming aware of issues such as bio-prospecting, on their own level.
- “Well, children. Do you have any ideas about what you want to be when you grow up?” Dr. Ethyl asked.
- “I’d like to be an explorer,” said Mal, “go places, be the first to find out things that no one knows about.“ “I’m not sure,” said Mel. “Being an explorer sounds like fun, but I’d really like to find out more about interesting stuff like those pink things.”
- “Those are very good ideas,” said Dr. Ethyl. “Keep studying and learning. Ours is a world full of questions that need to be answered. I have the feeling you both will find ways to make the world a better place, and I strongly suspect that this won’t be your last encounter with extremophiles.”
- Agnes and Mort agreed that this first trip turned out to be quite a success. The twins appeared to enjoy it all and had learned a great deal about extremophiles and a small portion of Yellowstone’s unusual character. But it was also quite a lot of travel for a short weekend, so Agnes and Mort decided to research interesting places closer to home for the following month’s visit. Perhaps a farm, where the twins could experience first-hand where some of the food they eat come from.
- In the meantime, Agnes and Mort determined to reinforce the lessons the children learned over this weekend, so they planned to continue discussing Yellowstone, and future places they would visit. Meanwhile, they planned a visit to let the twins' grandpa know all about their trip.
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SOME LINKS TO MORE INFORMATION
ADDITIONAL EXTREMOPHILE LINKS
International Society for Extremophiles
Centre for Extremophile Research
- LINKS: BOOK 1 TABLE OF CONTENTS
INTRODUCTION TO THE BIOFABLES SERIES
BioFables 1 Teaching Brief
BioFables 1 & 2: Word Counts, Reading Levels