From Yellowstone to COVID-19 Testing

From Yellowstone to COVID-19 Testing

Created On
Feb 05 2022
Last Updated
Mar 25 2024

PCR tests are everywhere, from paternity testing to COVID-19 detection. Learn how the colorful organisms from the Yellowstone National Park helped develop this this technology.

Today's PCR tests (not rapid tests, but those with samples going to the labs) owe a big thanks to the Yellowstone National Park.

The technology used to detect COVID-19 virus uses micro organisms from the hot geysers like The 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'.

A Biologist Walks into the Park

The interesting story of their discovery starts in 1964 when Thomas Brock, a biologist from Indiana, took a vacation in Yellowstone. He was mesmerized by the organisms that could survive the boiling waters of the hot pools.

Brock 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.

From Yellowstone to Nobel Prize

In 1980, Kary Mullis, a scientist from 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 PCR 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 large number of copies to detect them easily. While everything is being 'cooked', or denatured, in the heated soup, the Taq from Yellowstone's Mushroom Pool is happily making copies of the DNA.

For this parth breaking invention of PCR, Mullis received the Nobel Prize in 1993.

Transformative Power

Do you know someone who has taken an ancestry DNA test?

How about paternity tests?

Have you heard of a new variety of apples that doesn't turn brown when sliced?

All these innovations are only possible thanks to research supported by tiny microbes from the 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.


Genetic Variants of Heart Disease - a detailed look at the critical role genes play in heart diseases.

Genetic Testing and Disease Inheritability - test and tell: how genes pass on diseases from parents to children.

Longevity, APOE and Alzheimer’s - learn about ApoE and it's role in Alzheimer's and life span.

MTHFR and Heart Health - a look at MTHFR gene's role in health.

How to Read a Celiac Genetic Test Report - simple steps to make the most of your results.

Family History and Genes as Risk Factors of Heart Diseasehow genes shape our heart health.

The Differences Between Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes Explained - a look at this common disease.

CVD and Vitamin Dresearch on sunlight and heart health.