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Key Ingredient in Coronavirus Tests Comes From Yellowstone’s Heated Pools


A fairly innocuous observation of the tiny cyanobacteria that live in the hot springs and boiling pools of Yellowstone National Park by a scientist in 1966 would lead to the discovery of a molecule that now, 54 years later, is being used to fuel the testing process of the Viral RNA. of a virus responsible for a pandemic that disrupts civilization.

Ken lane

As Jeff Goldblum’s character said in Jurassic Park, “Life, uh, finds a way.” Outside of the Hollywood realm, it was these soft cyanobacterial mats found in puddles of water that can reach a boiling point that created a revolution in science, proving that life can survive in conditions that used to be considered unsustainable even for the bacteria.

“What’s the use of searching for live bacteria in hot springs and boiling pools in Yellowstone National Park?” said scientist Thomas Brock in his acceptance speech for an honorary degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Well, in addition to creating the trigger for the founding of another dimension of life sciences, it led to another fundamental discovery: a heat-resistant enzyme called DNA polymerase, which to this day allows scientists to accurately test COVID-19 through DNA replication. at will.

Life finds a way

In the 1980s, American biochemist Kary Mullis discovered that it was possible to mimic the way DNA copies itself and that if you marked regions of the body with “primers,” small segments of DNA, and then applied DNA polymerase, enzyme would turn the primers into whatever Mullis wanted to copy.

To do this, according to National Geographic, the sample had to undergo a circular heating and cooling process that damaged the DNA polymerase. It could still work, but it was slow, arduous, and like continuously heating a piece of meat, it caused breakdowns in the proteins that would kill the process entirely.

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However, Mullis realized that Thermus aquaticus—The species of cyanobacteria discovered by Mr. Brock at Mushroom Springs, Yellowstone — spent all of its time in water averaging 191 degrees Fahrenheit, and that DNA polymerase in its cells might be resistant to the heat needed to activate the process of replication.

Sure enough, his hunch was correct, and it is that process, made of the enzyme that is inside Thermus aquaticus, which is used to test people positive or negative for COVID-19.

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After the SARS-CoV-2 viral RNA is converted into DNA, the Mullis replication method is applied to the areas where the virus is detected, infinitely replicating cells in a test sample until the presence of the virus is clear or not. .

If you go to Yellowstone and read some of the posters surrounding the iconic sets of geothermal features, you will notice that one explains the discovery of cyanobacteria and how it changed scientists’ understanding of the fundamental components of life. That discovery has been expanded with further investigation of microbes that live in underwater thermal vents, creating a picture of what microbial life might need to survive on other planets.

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But in the meantime, the cyanobacteria behind the Brock and Mullis discoveries are powering the testing process that helps us humans survive on Earth amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

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