BYU students camp and study in Yellowstone


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For only $25, students can see grizzlies in their natural habitat, view a geyser blast boiling water 75 feet into the air and camp for a couple of days.

Of course, that also depends if the bear wants to be seen. The geyser, Old Faithful in Yellowstone, is a guarantee, and camping is inevitable. Other animals, such as elk, are common in Yellowstone alongside wolves and coyotes and the old crowd favorite: buffalo.

Photo source:
Fact source: National Park Service
Graphic compiled by Liesl Hansen

Every fall semester, students in the BYU microbiology club and in the microbiology class named “Extremophiles” took a trip to Yellowstone the first week of the semester. The microbiology and molecular biology class, or MMBIO 110R, is a block class available only during fall semester at BYU. Students interested in this class should keep it on their radar when registration rolls around. While the students spend most of the trip camping and exploring, they also study bacteria living in the hot pots of Yellowstone.

“These hot pots are the excuse to come to Yellowstone,” said Eric Wilson, a professor of microbiology. “It kind of looks like lily pads growing. This is the kind of research that senators make fun of. The research has no obvious benefit.”

The benefit exists, although it takes a scientist to explain why.

“It all comes down to the polymerase chain reaction,” Wilson said. The polymerase chain reaction sequences the human genome. It enables diagnostic work. It’s the process that helps people who might be diabetic or who would need other genetic testing done.

According to Wilson, bacteria called “Taq,” short for Thermos Aquaticus, was first discovered in Yellowstone. Taq enables the process in polymerase chain reaction. It has an enzyme that replicates DNA at super-high temperatures, which is essential for the reaction.

“With Taq suddenly you were able to amplify DNA so you can more easily find out what is there,” said Hyrum Shumway, a graduate student and teaching assistant for the extremophiles class. “What microbes are there, what they are doing and how they are interacting.”

Shumway has been on the Yellowstone trip four different times. He enjoys making friends with people in all different stages of college and spending time with professors.

While on the Fall 2015 trip, Wilson took out an infrared thermometer and pointed it to different mats just off the boardwalk. The different pigments indicate different species. He measured the different colors with the thermometer. Even if the species were just inches apart, the temperatures varied drastically.

“It’s the same bacteria that influences the colors of plants,” he said.

The students were just as fascinated as the teachers were.

“I knew the colors were caused by bacteria, but I didn’t know all of it was bacteria,” said Rebecca Nemrow, a student studying microbiology. “There are mats on top of these things, and they’re gorgeous.”

A small portion of the trip involved studying the microbes in Yellowstone, while the rest involved exploring Yellowstone and all of its sites and animals. The students took the day off to visit hot pots and see Old Faithful, the Grand Prismatic geyser as part of the park. They also witnessed a grizzly running through the park and took pictures of buffalo whenever the chance came. Bull elk could be heard bugling throughout the night.

“The second time I went, there was probably about six or seven elk just walking around our campsite,” Shumway said.

Audio clip of bull elk bugling. Source: Soundbible

California native Claire Poore, a student studying laboratory sciences, loved being around like-minded students, or as she put it, “people who won’t mind putting their faces in bacteria and checking it out.”

The second week of the semester the students go camping in Yellowstone. Two weeks after that, the class visits the Great Salt Lake, and at the end of the block they visit a sewage treatment plant. The favorite part of the class, however, is Yellowstone.

“Yellowstone is a great opportunity to learn from professors, fellow students and from nature,” Shumway said.

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