Research with wacky titles still yields miracles, like former IU biologist Brock’s PCR enzyme

The technology known as polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, has been described as one of most pivotal discoveries in the life sciences in human history. The tool – the ability to generate unlimited copies of a fragment of DNA – has led to the creation of successful drugs and vaccines, accurate genetic tests for diseases, the tools forensic scientists use for maternity tests and crime scene analysis, and it’s made sequencing of the human genome possible.

A biochemist named Kary Mullis won the Nobel Prize in 1983 for creating the technology, but Mullis’ work would not have been possible if not for an Indiana University biology professor who in the summer of 1966 visited Yellowstone National Park along with an IU undergraduate biology student in an attempt to understand how organisms survived in the extreme conditions of the park’s geysers and hot springs.

A year later – Nov. 24, 1967, to be exact – IU professor Thomas D. Brock published “Life at High Temperatures: Evolutionary, ecological, and biochemical significance of organisms living in hot springs is discussed,” in the leading scientific journal Science. Little did Brock know that the bacterial sample he and then-undergraduate student Hudson Freeze gathered a year earlier at Mushroom Spring in Yellowstone – the sample that would yield the microbe they would call YT-1 – would allow Mullis to develop PCR. YT-1 would turn out to be a goose that laid a golden egg for mankind.

image of thermus aquaticus

Thomas D. Brock discovered the PCR-enabling Thermus aquaticus 47 years ago while a biology professor at IU.

To study DNA, scientists needed a lot of it, yet cells contain very small amounts. Attempts to copy DNA by unraveling it in the lab involved very high temperatures and the enzymes that occurred in DNA would either quit functioning or disassemble. Then came Thermus aquaticus, the Mushroom Springs microbe brought to IU by Brock and Freeze, that would soon be shown to stay alive in boiling water and to be widely distributed around the world, even in the water pipes of buildings at the IU Bloomington campus.

Since the microbe, which they nicknamed Taq, contained DNA, it also had the right enzymes to conduct replication. And eventually, the best enzyme for use in PCR was taken from that YT-1 strain that Brock and Freeze brought to IU for study.

Next week Brock, now retired and living in Wisconsin, and Freeze, a professor and director of the genetic disease program at Sanford Children’s Health Research Center in La Jolla, Calif., will receive the Golden Goose Award in a ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. The award, created in 2012 by a coalition of organizations after being proposed by U.S. Congressman Jim Cooper of Tennessee, is designed to recognize the scientists and engineers whose federally funded research has had significant human and economic benefits.

Cooper is the kind of congressman scientists should love: “We’ve all read stories about the study with the wacky title, the research project from left field,” he has said. “But off-the-wall science yields medical miracles. We can’t abandon research funding only because we can’t predict how the next miracle will happen.”

Nothing could be more true, and Brock and Freeze remain living proof that those quests, like theirs 47 years ago, toward unveiling and solving new mysteries do indeed yield miracles … like PCR.

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