The bacterium that loves boiling water.
50 years ago, the summer of love was segueing into the fall.
The Beatles were on their way to number one on the Billboard Hot 100 with “All You Need Is Love.”
And a microbiologist named Thomas Brock was spending a lot of time in Yellowstone National Park, conducting research that was destined to become hugely important to the work we do here at uBiome.
Thomas Brock came to mind recently when our Science Editor, Elisabeth Bik, took a small group of us through the molecular biology behind the processes that our laboratory uses to turn biological samples – very often, poop – into invaluable hard data.
In the process, Elisabeth casually let drop that we make use of an enzyme obtained from a bacterium that was originally discovered in virtually boiling water at Yellowstone.
One brief literature search later, we were delighted to learn that the bacteria in question, Thermus aquaticus, was identified during the summer of love, by Thomas Brock in 1967.
What began with a scientist dangling glass slides in the hot waters at Yellowstone started a wave of research that culminated in a Nobel Prize (not for Brock, though) and the Swiss pharmaceutical giant Hoffmann La-Roche paying over $300 million to acquire world rights to a process based on T. aquaticus.
Let’s begin with its early discovery, though, in the mid-1960s.
On research trips to Yellowstone, Brock had noticed masses of pink filamentous bacteria floating in “mats” on the surface of the very hot water in a pool known as Mushroom Spring.
Because of Yellowstone’s altitude, water boils at 92.5°C. T. aquaticus was surviving at temperatures of up to 80°C, and was at its best at around 70°C, making it a fairly extreme example of a thermophilic (heat-loving) microorganism.
During his work with what has been described as “life too small to see, in water too hot to touch,” it seems ironic that Brock’s research partner was named Hudson Freeze.
Although it would go on to lay the foundations for multi-million dollar businesses, the scientists’ early collection methods were decidedly rudimentary.
They tied one or two glass microscope slides to a length of string, then dangled their “bait” into Mushroom Spring’s hot water, tying the other end of the string to a log, rock, or nail.
After a while, the microbiologists returned to retrieve their slides, virtually all of which had become coated with bacteria, so much so in some cases that the slides had a biofilm that was visible to the naked eye.
Thereafter, Brock also found T. aquaticus much closer to home – in the hot water pipes of the university, in fact – and realized that it was also present in many buildings’ heating systems.
The story could easily have ended there, but almost two decades later, in 1983, the microbiologist Kary Mullis realized that he could use heat-stable DNA polymerase obtained from T. aquaticus to speed up DNA replication, a vital step in a process called polymerase chain reaction (PCR).
The polymerase was given a snappy name, Taq (for T. aquaticus), and Mullis – well – he was given the Nobel Prize for his work, in 1993.
Prior to this award, Science magazine made Taq polymerase its first ever “Molecule of the Year,” in 1989.
Eat your heart out, Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.
And in 1991, the Chief Science Advisor to President George Bush used T. aquaticus as an example to explain that with a lot of research and development it is often “hard to predict when, where, and to whom, returns will accrue.”
In a further twist to the story, Brock’s discovery later led to the determination that many microorganisms that had been previously regarded as bacteria weren’t.
In fact, they belonged to a completely new domain – Archaea.
What began with fishing for microbes in hot water, with glass slides tied to a string, therefore ended up having a profound impact on the world of molecular biology.
Kerry Mullis ended up with a Nobel Prize.
So how did Thomas Brock do?
Well, he got another thermophilic species of bacteria named after him: Thermoanaerobacter brockii. He and his wife are reportedly now happily operating the 140 acre Pleasant Valley Conservancy State Natural Area in Dane County, Wisconsin.
And PCR has gone on to become one of the most widely-used techniques in molecular biology, turning Hoffmann La-Roche’s patent into a hugely valuable asset.
But what riches were accorded to Yellowstone after its microbes led to the generation of many millions of dollars of commercial value?
Well, according to the New York Times in 2006, no royalties have gone either to the park or to the National Park Service.