Picture of

This scientist studies microbes found in Peru’s Boiling River

In the tiny organisms, Rosa Vásquez Espinoza seeks potential solutions to big challenges, such as the need to develop new medicines.

A National Geographic Explorer and chemical biologist, Rosa Vásquez Espinoza analyzes life at its smallest levels in the Amazon rainforest in Peru.
Photograph by Ana Elisa Sotelo

Flowing through Peru’s rainforest is a roughly four-mile stretch of water known as the Boiling River. Fed by geothermal springs, it reaches more than 200°F—hot enough to kill animals that slip into its path. The river has long been the stuff of legend, even dismissed by some Peruvians as nonexistent.

But to Rosa Vásquez Espinoza, a Lima-born chemical biologist and National Geographic Explorer, the Boiling River is very real. As the creator of MicroAmazon, a multidisciplinary examination of the rainforest at its tiniest, she’s studying the microbes in the river’s extreme environment. “No one has ever explored these organisms,” says David Sherman, head of the University of Michigan lab where Vásquez Espinoza is a researcher. The aim is to determine if the microbes “could offer new avenues to developing antibiotics, antifungal agents, or antivirals,” he says. (Vásquez Espinoza has also studied stingless bees that make medicinal honey.)

In 2019 she and her collaborators took microbial samples from 19 sites in and along the river. Now they’re making a virtual map of their work featuring video, photography, and data. Vásquez Espinoza hopes it will facilitate further research. Her ultimate goal: “When we think about the Amazon rainforest biodiversity, we think beyond what we see with our eyes.”

One area of interest for Vásquez Espinoza are the Peruvian Amazon’s stingless bees and the medicinal honey they produce. In this image, she analyzes honey samples. On the table are native plants and fruits believed to be part of the bees’ diets.
One area of interest for Vásquez Espinoza are the Peruvian Amazon’s stingless bees and the medicinal honey they produce. In this image, she analyzes honey samples. On the table are native plants and fruits believed to be part of the bees’ diets.
Photograph by Ana Elisa Sotelo
The National Geographic Society has funded Vásquez Espinoza’s work since 2019. Learn more about its support of Explorers researching our planet’s critical landscapes at natgeo.com/impact.

This story appears in the September 2022 issue of National Geographic magazine.

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