Today's PCR tests (not rapid tests, but those going to the labs) owe a big thanks to Yellowstone National Park. The technology used to detect COVID-19 virus uses micro organisms from the hot geysers like Old Faithful.
In order to detect the virus, a lab heats the sample and makes copies of DNA or RNA. But not many living beings can survive high temperatures, except those from Yellowstone's hot vents.
The microbes from the Yellowstone hot springs can survive up to 250 °F (or 120 °C), making it possible for the lab to make millions of copies while everything else gets 'cooked'.
The story starts in 1964 when Thomas Brock, a biologist from Indiana, took a vacation in Yellowstone and was mesmerized by the organisms that could survive the boiling waters of the hot pools.
He spent next ten years studying microbes from Yellowstone and other thermal springs all over US. His team discovered many new forms of life at high temperatures, which they called thermophiles. The most interesting one, from the Mushroom Pool of Yellowstone, was named Thermus aquaticus.
In 1980, Kary Mullis, a scientist in California found clever use of these high temperature dwellers. Over a weekend, while driving from Berkeley to his cabin in Mendocino wine country, he came up with an idea of making millions of copies of DNA quickly.
His invention of PCR (polymerase chain reaction), uses an an enzyme called Taq, from Thermus aquaticus. The process is similar to making photocopies of a book: the DNA is heated to open up like a book, copied over, and cooled down to close the book. The process is repeated 30-40 times to make enough copies that it can be studied easily. While everything is being 'cooked' in the heated soup, the Taq from Yellowstone's Mushroom Pool is happily making copies of the DNA.
For his invention of PCR, Mullis received the Nobel Prize in 1993.
Do you know someone who has taken an ancestry DNA test? How about paternity tests? Have you heard about a new apple that doesn't turn brown immediately after slicing? They are possible thanks to research supported by the tiny microbes from Yellowstone's hot pools. The field of medicine and forensics have been transformed by PCR.
In next decade, we will hear a lot more about PCR, as scientists discover better cures and newer tests to improve our health. It is one of the most exciting fields to build career and make an impact for a student today.
One important area of research is Gut Biome. Trillions of helpful microbes live in our gut, but we know so little about them. Only one-third of Gut microbes are understood. But expect to hear a lot more in next few years.
We know that diets with fibers, fermented foods, and probiotics help the gut. We also know some gut bacteria to be harmful, e.g., H. pylori. But how they combine to support our overall health is still a mystery. With advancements, such as CRISPR, our ability to study and modify genetic material has the potential to completely transform health and well-being.
A Gut Health Test checks for over one-hundred bacteria, viruses, fungi, molds, and other harmful pathogens.