08/07/2020

This Peruvian Boiling River Holds More Than Meets The Eye

17:00 minutes

Este entrevista está disponible en español. This interview is available in Spanish. See photos and video of Rosa Vásquez Espinoza’s expedition to the Boiling River and learn more about her research on extreme microbes in a feature article on SciFri. 


a woman scientist wearing gloves looks a specimen through a microscope as she sits on rocks along a steaming river
Rosa Vásquez Espinoza on the banks of the river. Credit: Ana Sotelo

Hot town, summer in the city, as the song says. This year, cities and towns around the world are broiling in record summer heat. But some microbes actually enjoy the heat. Hiding in the largest rainforest of Latin America is the Peruvian Boiling River, a name earned from water that can reach 100°C—or about 212°F. 

While the river is hot enough to cook any animal unfortunate enough to wind up in it, its microbes don’t mind. They can handle the heat—and their odd survival mechanisms might have medicinal value. 

Joining Ira to talk about these tiny heat-seekers and the Peruvian Boiling River is Rosa Vásquez Espinoza, a Ph.D. candidate in chemical biology at the University of Michigan. Journey out to the Boiling River with Vásquez Espinoza a new story on SciFri! 

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Segment Guests

Rosa Vázquez Espinoza

Rosa Vázquez Espinoza is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Hot town summer in the city, as the song says.

Cities and towns around the world are grilling in record summer heat. But some small critters actually enjoy this heat, even hotter. Hiding in the largest rainforest of Latin America is the Peruvian Boiling River– a deserved name because the water can reach 100 degrees Celsius. That’s 212 Fahrenheit. As you know it, the temperature of boiling water.

And while the river is hot enough to cook any critter unfortunate enough to wind up in it, tiny microbes don’t mind. They love the heat. These microbes caught the eye of some scientists due to their possible medicinal value. And one of them is joining us today. Rosa Vazquez Espinoza, PhD candidate in the chemical biology program at the University of Michigan. Welcome to Science Friday.

ROSA VASQUEZ ESPINOZA: Hi, thank you so much for having me. I’m really excited to talk about the Amazon and to media. Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: You’ve traveled all the way to Peru to study these microbes. This is not a quick trip I imagine.

ROSA VASQUEZ ESPINOZA: No, absolutely. I am originally from Peru. But I’ve been in the US for a few years.

And it takes two airplanes to get first to leave out of the capital of Peru. And then from there, we have to take a small local plane. And then from there, nowadays it’s about three to four hours of road trip to get to the boiling river area. But years ago, maybe 2011 or so, it would actually take also a trip with a peka peka, which is local small boat, plus hiking to get to the area.

IRA FLATOW: It must be worth it, though, when you get there, right?

ROSA VASQUEZ ESPINOZA: Oh, it’s absolutely breathtaking, yes.

IRA FLATOW: Tell me– describe what it looks like.

ROSA VASQUEZ ESPINOZA: So I have been traveling to the Amazon rainforest, to the Peruvian Amazon rainforest for many years. I’ve visited all the way from the north to the south. And I’m always just amazed at how you can feel, in my mind, life in its purest form.

You can hear it. You can smell it. You can touch it.

However, the first time that I went to the Boiling River area, which was in 2016, we were going down a small cliff with an off-road truck. And I couldn’t see the river yet.

But all of a sudden, I noticed that there is vapor escaping into the tallest trees. And basically, the vapor keeps going towards the sky. And at some point, you will strike where the vapor ends and where the clouds begin. And that moment to me was, woah, OK, this is a completely unique different, place. And it just gives you this sense of mystique. And just knowing you are somewhere completely unique.

IRA FLATOW: Walking through a cloud, really.

ROSA VASQUEZ ESPINOZA: That was kind of the sensation. Yeah, it just really made me stop. And yeah–

IRA FLATOW: Tell us why the water is boiling. How does the river water get so hot? Is there a volcano there usually like we think?

ROSA VASQUEZ ESPINOZA: That’s a great question. So the Boiling River is extremely unique because of three particular characteristics. One, it’s a huge river. So it is actually as wide as a two lane road.

In the deepest point, it can get up to 16 feet deep. There is a large volume of water flowing there constantly. It is extremely hot as you mentioned.

The temperatures reach over 200 Fahrenheit. And then also, it’s non volcanic. So the nearest volcano is over 400 miles away.

And the person that introduced the river to the world per se, his name is our dear friend and mentor Andrés Ruzo. And I would highly recommend everyone to watch his TED talk in 2014 where he explains more of the geology and geochemistry of the river and what makes it boil basically constantly.

IRA FLATOW: That’s quite fascinating. Now I know you went looking for microbes. I mean, you can’t wait into the water, into the boiling water and try to fish out microbes, can you? How do you find the microbes?

ROSA VASQUEZ ESPINOZA: Yeah, no, absolutely not. If you think about it, if your skin comes in contact with the water, it is at 150 Fahrenheit for two seconds only. You already will get a third degree burn.

So in the river, the hottest point, we’re looking at 200 Fahrenheit plus. So we had to use special tools, heat resistant material in order to reach the samples at these hottest points. But eventually, the river does cool down. So the temperature gradually cools down until the point that you can actually go inside the river safely.

We were collecting different type of microbes. We were collecting cyanobacteria, which you may know from your local ponds where you see microbial muds, almost green algae mud being formed on ponds around the world. Also, we found some of these in the boiling river. So we looked specifically for the few areas where these cyanobacteria muds were formed, as well sediments. Sediments known for containing a large number of bacteria.

So we collected sediment from different points of the river. And then lastly, also lichens, which are a combination of typically cyanobacteria and fungi. We also found them on some of the hottest spots of the river as well.

IRA FLATOW: Why are they living in such hot water? I mean, you would normally think when you want to sterilize something, you put it into boiling water. This doesn’t seem to affect them. Well, why? Is that why they’re living there, to protect themselves from predators?

ROSA VASQUEZ ESPINOZA: Yeah, so we know in these type of microbes that are capable of living in these extreme conditions as extremophiles. In this case, we are talking about thermophiles. But in other states and other areas around the world, you can also find microbes capable of living in a very acidic Ph, for example, or sustaining high pressure, et cetera.

In this particular case, these thermophiles have a specific information encoded within their DNA that provides them with a survival advantage. They have evolved throughout time in order to thrive where, really, other forms of life die. If you put any other macro form of life, like a small animal there, it will boil from inside out.

It’s not a nice way of dying. But these microbes have that unique capacity. And most likely as a result of the environmental stress where they live, they are now flourishing and thriving. And that’s one of the reasons why we think they could be producing very unique molecules, natural products, that provides them with this survival advantage.

IRA FLATOW: Those would be possibly medicinal products we might be using if we learn how they make them, or how they produce them?

ROSA VASQUEZ ESPINOZA: That is one of the things that we’re looking for, absolutely, natural products that could perhaps serve as potential medicines, lifesaving antibiotics, anti-cancer drugs. But also, that could serve us perhaps biological probes or agents for bio remediation.

And in addition to that, we’re looking at the enzymes, which are basically the factories that manufacture these complex natural product molecules within the microbes. And this enzyme, because they are able to withstand these very extreme hot temperatures, then they could also serve as relevant bio catalyze in order to help us perform green chemistry.

IRA FLATOW: How did you become interested in the world of microbes like this?

ROSA VASQUEZ ESPINOZA: It all comes really from a love for nature. My family was born and raised in a small town in the high Andes of Peru, where they had extremely limited access to Western medicine. In fact, I remember stories that my mom used to tell me where a doctor would only come from every four months or so to provide critical care for some patients.

But besides that, the community really needed to rely on traditional medicinal knowledge. And my grandmother was actually one of the people well versed in this in the area. So whenever they moved to Lima, the capital of Peru, where I was born and raised, my grandmother took all of this knowledge and made sure that she developed a small sort of pharmacy in our backyard.

So all the plants that she uses medicinal, even soil. And I grew up in this environment where she would tell me what to take or what combination of things to use whenever I had x-illness, et cetera. And I was always fascinated how this nature is capable of curing us and protecting us, and how can we protect it back.

And eventually, I came to learn that many plants and fundae produce these type of molecules as well as the microbes within them. And that, to me, was just fascinating. And that led me to the Sherman Lab at the University of Michigan right now.

IRA FLATOW: So these microbes in the river, do they form these natural products, too? And do people– communities who live by the river, do they use that?

ROSA VASQUEZ ESPINOZA: That’s what we’re hoping to find. We’re at the beginning of our research. And within the next few months, we will be able to reveal what type of molecules we’re finding from these microbes.

In terms of the local community, we appreciate so much the local community that lives in the area, which is called [SPANISH]. They really support a responsible eco tourism in the area as it has become a little bit more popular. And we hope to share our results with them so that they are more aware of what they have in their backyard basically for them at the micro level.

Something that really shocked me and one of the reasons why I do what I do is how little we know about the microbial life in the Peruvian Amazon, considering that Peru is the second country in South America with the largest amount of Amazon rainforest. Most of the work done at these microbiological level in the Amazon rainforest in general has been done in Brazil, where we have little to none in Peru. And I always say, how can we think about protecting an area if we don’t fully understand what’s resonating there.

IRA FLATOW: What gets you most excited about your research on the Boiling River?

ROSA VASQUEZ ESPINOZA: What excites me the most about the type of work that we’re doing is to inspire and encourage people around the world to look at the Amazon rainforest with a different lens. I want them to learn that it’s not just about jaguars and anacondas and the exotic plants that we are also able to find in the area. But there is these, quote, unquote, “hidden microscopic universe” that holds who knows how many chemical and geologic treasures. And we know nearly nothing about it in the Amazon rainforest. And I think it can really serve as a great support also for sustained conservation efforts in the area.

IRA FLATOW: Now I know that there are other places where microbes live. And you even mentioned that a little bit. Like, let’s say, Yellowstone Park, right? You had that geyser there. There are microbes living in it. How close are those to the ones that you’re studying in the Boiling River? Or are they all different?

ROSA VASQUEZ ESPINOZA: That’s a fascinating question that we’re hoping to answer within the next few months, whenever our first piece of work and results come out. So I cannot share much with you at this moment. But I will say that the Boiling River ecosystem is unique on its own in addition to the fact that it’s located within one of the most biodiverse hotspots of the world in the Amazon rainforest. So I’m really excited within the next few months to share more details about that.

IRA FLATOW: When you were on the site, did you also look at the samples to make sure they were microbes?

ROSA VASQUEZ ESPINOZA: Microbes are really found anywhere. We did also took some field microscopes actually so that whenever we’re collecting what looks like algae muds, so that we prioritize collecting cyanobacteria, which are also known as blue green algae, versus regular green algae. And by having taken a look under the microscope, we can quite quickly determine we would have one or the other. So that did help us prioritize where we were collecting from.

IRA FLATOW: Did you have any fear that the microbes you were collecting might be poisonous or harmful?

ROSA VASQUEZ ESPINOZA: That’s actually a great question. We were taking all the precautions we could at the moment. And also because the Boiling River, in addition to being such a spiritual beautiful place, is also dangerous. As I have mentioned before, one needs to be extremely careful when working around the area, not only because of the fog that we have, the boiling water right next to us, but the vapor coming out of the river is also very, very hot.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. Do the locals– do the people living around there give you any tips, any hints, any watch out for this, or try this, or look over there?

ROSA VASQUEZ ESPINOZA: No, not really. So what I enjoy the most about our interactions with the local community was actually, at the end of the day, we had set up our microscope to look at some of the samples we had collected throughout the day. And some of the younger members of the community were really curious about what we were doing, looking at this little machine that we had there.

So we started to explain to them what it is that we’re looking for and why, and how do these microbes look under the scope. And seeing their eyes just fascinated by being able to see really a whole other level of the biodiversity that they have in their own backyards, that was really special. And we actually got to leave some field microscopes with them. And I told them OK, this is how we document results. And the goal being that next time we go there, hopefully next year once it’s safe to travel, that they show me what they’ve been collecting in their own backyard.

IRA FLATOW: How will you know when a trip like this, you’ve spent so much time, so much effort, you’ve spent a lot of money, I’m sure– how do you know the trip is successful? What makes this trip successful, and how would you know that?

ROSA VASQUEZ ESPINOZA: I love this question because I think one defines their own meaning of success. And one of the personal experiences we had during the expedition trip that I already think defines a milestone in our success was that we got to teach some of the other members of the expedition, who were not doing our type of work, what we were doing.

So they went with us for a little bit to learn what it is that we’re collecting and how to do it safely, and why, and again, introducing them to the concept that microbes are not all bad and harmful. They in fact are the basis for life that we appreciate the microscopic forms of life that we see and enjoy. And I think that just really gives you a much deeper appreciation for nature.

And by doing that, you care more for it and for protecting it. And that’s one of the ultimate goals we want to achieve with this project on microbes. So I would say, as a first step, that is something I already think of as a success for our project.

And next, we got to collect that a large number of samples. And so far, the research is getting really exciting. So I cannot wait to share more within the next few months.

IRA FLATOW: I would imagine you would be sharing this with other biologists around South America, who are looking at other rivers and possibly trying to create a catalog of what lives in all the water there.

ROSA VASQUEZ ESPINOZA: Yeah, actually, that’s one of our main goals is to develop a database, and open source, interactive database in both English and Spanish where we collect all of the scientific data that we have from our work so far so that it can serve us tools to advance research in the Amazon in general, as also to advocate for sustained conservation efforts. But in addition to that, we also made sure to take very captivating media, including 3D videos and photos as well as microscopic media so that we can introduce this in our database and attract the attention of non-scientist as well, so that we can educate others on the microbial world and its fascinating treasures.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, it’s also, I guess, for conservation efforts because once you know what’s there, you know what would be missing.

ROSA VASQUEZ ESPINOZA: Yeah, absolutely. I do really think that the microbial map that we are working to develop, to document the diversity in the area, the micro level can help us understand if there’s any specific patterns, for example, in relation to this around in ecology, understanding their evolutionary past. Can we understand how life came to be in the Amazon? And really, to look towards the future, I think we really need to understand the past in all of this work to serve us, again, as a tool for conservation, ultimately.

IRA FLATOW: Well, I’m glad you took time to join us and tell us about your adventures and what you’re finding. Thank you very much for taking time to be with us today.

ROSA VASQUEZ ESPINOZA: Thank you so much for inviting me. I would also like to thank the National Geographic Society for funding, as well as generous donors U of M alumni for supporting our work.

IRA FLATOW: Rosa Vasquez Espinoza, a PhD candidate in the Chemical Biology Program at the University of Michigan. And we’ve got a whole article written by her intern, Attabey, about Rosa’s experience out in the Boiling River. It’s up on our website. It’s all filled with expedition photos, videos, and more. So check it out at sciencefriday.com/boilingriver.

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About Attabey Rodríguez Benítez

Attabey Rodríguez Benítez is a 2020 AAAS Mass Media Science Fellow and is Science Friday’s 2020 summer radio intern. She enjoys all things science and how they intertwine with culture, history, and society, but she enjoys it more when food is also involved.

About Kathleen Davis

Kathleen Davis is an assistant producer at Science Friday, which means she spends the week brainstorming, researching, and writing, typically in that order. She’s a big fan of stories related to strange animal facts and dystopian technology.

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