The Yellowstone National Park–Ebola Connection: Could It Help Protect More Natural Places?

Candice Gaukel Andrews November 18, 2014 8

A particular enzyme in one of Yellowstone National Park’s springs could be a step on the way to finding a cure for Ebola. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

Recently, when a drone crashed in Grand Prismatic Spring in Midway Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park, it sparked a public debate about the use of such devices in our jointly owned, national treasures and the protections for such lands that we currently have in place. Of course, most of us wouldn’t advocate for having our access limited or want to see big fences built around the natural wonders we love to experience.

But when I read about the connection between a particular enzyme found in Yellowstone National Park and a step on the path to finding a cure for Ebola, I was even more struck by how much we need to safeguard these resources—even from ourselves. Lucigen Corporation, a company located in a suburb of my own hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, has developed the first-of-its-kind Ebola diagnosis tool—one made from the famous park’s thermal features.

Could this accelerate stricter protections and garner more funds for our national parklands from Congress, or convince legislators to value our natural resources more?

More than 120 prescription drugs sold worldwide—and more than two-thirds of all cancer-fighting medicines—are derived from rain forest plants. ©Eric Rock

Enzyme for diagnosing Ebola

Lucigen officials discovered the unique enzyme that works as a platform for testing for Ebola on a trip to Yellowstone several years ago. Found in Yellowstone’s Octopus Spring in the Lower Geyser Basin, this particular enzyme can multiply either DNA or RNA—which is unusual—and can do so at a steady temperature. According to Lucigen scientists, having only one temperature makes using the instrumentation far simpler and speeds up reaction time. This could be a key factor in containing the spread of the disease.

While Lucigen Corporation has been working with the enzyme for more than a decade in tests for many sorts of infectious diseases, the company is now seeking emergency U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval for its portable Ebola diagnostic tool, which can be used anywhere in the field. A U.S. government agency is currently evaluating its performance against other tests, but the Lucigen version is already being tried in parts of West Africa where Ebola has spread.

Microbes for medicines

According to the Harvard School of Public Health, for almost 4 billion years, nature has been making biologically active compounds and conducting its own “clinical trials” on these compounds, which, if they didn’t work, are no longer around. Microbes have given us nearly all of our antibiotics, such as penicillin and cholesterol-lowering statins. In fact, the first statin came from a mold growing on an orange rind. A fungus from the dirt on Easter Island (or Rapa Nui) is the basis for an immune suppressing agent called rapacmycin, used in organ transplants and as a coating on surgical stents; and about half the drugs we depend on in our daily lives come directly or indirectly from the natural world.


Fungus from the dirt on Easter Island is used in organ transplant agents and as a coating on surgical stents.

Some of those compounds and medicines are:
• morphine from the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum),
• aspirin from the white willow tree (Salix alba vulgaris),
• the anticoagulant Coumadin from spoiled sweet clover (Melilotus species),
• vinblastine (which turns the once uniformly fatal Hodgkin’s lymphoma into a disease that can now be totally cured in many patients) and vincristine (which has done the same for acute childhood leukemia and lymphoma) from tropical plants such as the Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus),
• Taxol, an anticancer drug from the Pacific yew tree (Taxus brevifolia),
• AZT, the first effective remedy against AIDS, from an obscure sponge discovered in the Caribbean in 1949, and
• bryostatins, produced by sea creatures called bryozoans, which potentially could be treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, cancer and HIV/AIDS.

I realize, of course, that there is a danger in solely judging the worth of a natural area or a species on how it medicinally benefits us. But if the Yellowstone-Ebola connection could help provide more money or protections for our national parks and natural resources, perhaps environmentalists should capitalize on such tie-ins.

Do you think the Yellowstone–Ebola link could help in achieving protection for more of our natural lands, especially before the next presidential election?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,



  1. John A. Leone December 9, 2014 at 7:48 am - Reply

    Yellowstone is cool in all Seasons !! It’s the 2nd oldest and deserve our protection !!

  2. Mukonyi Kavaka Watai November 24, 2014 at 10:56 pm - Reply

    yes we visited yellowstone in 2011 and we modeled a project GEF NPIF funded on Kenya extremophiles mirobes from the Soda lakes as atrigger factor in raising need for enhanced support for protection of Nature. A lot we do not know that may contribute to the human survival.

  3. liam stacey November 21, 2014 at 12:17 pm - Reply

    Most chemistry experiments happen outside the laboratory

  4. Luc Janssens de Bisthoven November 20, 2014 at 9:50 am - Reply

    It’s a pity that humankind needs existential threats to its survival before coming into action. There must be something in our brain from reptilian times which still plays a major role in our decision making and actions. It is cynical that ebola now can help conservation. But I am not very optimistic as to our capacity as humans to react in the long term anyway. Remember long island, tchernobyl, exxon Valdez? As far as I know, we are still mainly on nuclear energy and fossil fuels…20-30 years later. The ‘I told you!’ exclamations I yelled at my father in my youth are just vain echos of a naive young idealist. The unsustainable neoliberal system is incredibly strong, because it has the appearance of being self-sustaining and brings immediate material comfort. The self-destruction comes later, in the next generations. Change management at the planet scale is a century project. The question is if the remaining biodiversity can wait so long. The >2°C tipping point for climate change should have an equivalent in the biodiversity world. When would come the tipping point where ecosystem resilience is lost? It happens already at multiple scales (badlands, erosion, coral bleaching, ….). But is there a universal tipping point? Would the oceans collapse before the terrestrial systems for example? Or are we secretly assuming biodiversity and evolution will postpone the tipping point indefinitely? Is there maybe (also) an ideological aspect in our way of thinking? Are we rather ‘Christian’, (or any other religion!) or ‘existentialist’ when we ponder about biodiversity and conservation (fatalistic, hoping for the better, in denial….).

  5. Angela P. Schapiro November 19, 2014 at 7:10 am - Reply

    We have so much left to learn and relearn those things that were common knowledge to our ancestors.

  6. Thomas Wrbka November 19, 2014 at 7:08 am - Reply

    Yes this kind of ecosystem services provided are a very good reason for safeguarding natural resources in protected areas. Another reason for protection would be their capacity to host “bioindicators” in their natural environments. It was recently argued, that professional monitoring of great apes in West Africas national parks would have helped to discover the early outbreak of Ebola before it was spreading throughout the countries. It seems a much better idea to protect and observe chnpmasees and gorillas than to illegally hunt and eat them as bushmeat and get infected by Ebola.

  7. John Daly November 18, 2014 at 9:08 am - Reply

    This is why we have been working to protect so many wild places. Especially the Amazon.
    I was in Yellowstone six weeks ago.

  8. Bob Gettman November 18, 2014 at 9:07 am - Reply

    Very interesting.

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