Seeing Extremophiles in the Boiling River By Rosa Vasquez

Lying down against a warm, giant-sized rock, I can feel the unapologetic steam of the river reaching my face. I follow its course towards the sky to realize it’s impossible to tell where the steam ends and the clouds begin. The sun set a few hours ago, letting the night come in its full splendor, with our mesmerizing Milky Way capturing everyone’s attention.

We are at the heart of the Peruvian Rainforest in a traditional community on the banks of the stunningly unique Boiling River of the Amazon. For centuries, this has been a place of legends and spirits, and its indigenous name, “Shanay Timpishka” means boiled with the heat of the sun. Located 430 miles from the nearest volcano, the Boiling River flows hot for 4 miles, reaching over 99ºC in sections, making it the world’s largest documented thermal river. Among the jungle’s orchestra of animals roaming free and strong winds whistling, you may catch the sound of the boiling waters bubbling.

It’s our first night at the Boiling River. We are here with 41 other explorers and scientists to study this biodiversity hotspot:

  • anthropologists looking for fossils;
  • geologists working to unveil the river’s geochemical secrets;
  • biologists searching for new species of the elegant praying mantis;
  • and ecologists studying the implications of elevated temperatures on the local flora.

Our team is looking for the Amazonian extremophiles – remarkable microscopic organisms that have evolved their genomes over thousands of years to flourish in the river’s extreme geothermal features. The boiling river is fatal to most organisms. These microbes properties may be useful for reforestation, biotechnology and medicine. What will we find?

Enjoying the limited time of generator-powered electricity we have, we gather to study maps of the area to organize a plan of action. The discussion is led by our fearless leader and geologist, Andrés Ruzo, who introduced the river to the world in 2014 through an engaging TED Talk. After years of working at the boiling River and advocating for its conservation, he envisioned bringing together experts and students to lead a research initiative of the area — and here we were, the Field Season 11 Expedition team: 41 people, from 7 countries, 23 different institutions. It was multidisciplinary to the extreme and a heavenly science camp experience.

The sunlight is peaking through the window and roosters are having a loud fest – yet the morning of our first fieldwork day feels calm. I remove the mosquito net around my bed to find countless critters that failed trying to sneak into my bed last night. I try to be quiet as to not disturb my roommates, but the intention goes south. I’m in the restroom preparing for a shower when I see a medium-size frog stuck to the shower wall. I stay still, it doesn’t look like a poisonous one. It notices me and athletically jumps to the other side of the room making me scream, to then mysteriously disappear.

After breakfast we inspect our gear – we will be going for a long hike to scout the river for collection sites and we can’t forget anything essential. We are carrying field microscopes (to distinguish cyanobacteria from green algae), spatulas, sample dipper ladles (for obtaining samples below the water’s surface), knifes, collection tubes, sharpies and notebooks. I also pack snacks, water, and first aids kits. Previous trips to the jungle have taught me to always be ready for the unexpected.

We start our hike early in the morning to avoid the midday heat, with everyone’s eyes shining with enthusiasm. As we follow trails snaking through dense vegetation, I meditate on life’s paths that led us here. Growing up in Perú, I learned early on to appreciate our Pachamama – Mother Earth. My grandmother would tell me fascinating stories about how nature can cure disease and I eventually learned that bacteria produce life-saving compounds. Years later, while visiting the Amazon, I thought “Why don’t we ever hear about Amazonian microbes and their chemistry?” I realized pursuing science would allow me to do that.

After doing an initial reconnaissance, we start sampling at the Boiling River Rapids, one of the hottest spots. The water is flowing rapidly, aggressively. There’s enough space for us to be here safely, but we need to be conscious of every step – there’s no room for error. As we scrape lichen off the rocks, I notice the steam reaching us and my hair getting wet from the condensing vapor. The heat is oppressive, it feels like we are in a gigantic, extra-hot sauna — and yet there is nowhere else I would rather be.

It only took one look through my field microscope to confirm that the Amazon Rainforest is more than its fascinating animals and trees. It’s home to an “invisible” world that keeps the greater jungle healthy and alive.

Before I know it, it’s our last night here, and I find myself sitting next to the river again, looking up at innumerable shooting stars streaking across the sky through clouds of vapor from the Boiling River. This image, and our entire experience, seems like it was taken out of an adventure novel. It is difficult not to fall in love with the Amazon. We only protect what we truly care about and we hope to make people care more.


This is a condensed article from an article by Rosa Vasquez, published in the American Society of Pharmacognosy Summer Magazine 2020