Vital Component of COVID-19 Tests Comes From Yellowstone’s Thermal Pools

Grand Prismatic Spring at Yellowstone National Park.Photo: Courtesy of Lane V. Erickson/Shutterstock

While we’re all stuck inside these days due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, just about every headline you see with mention of a national park is likely framed around new restrictions or closures. However, we recently came across a story that piqued our interest tremendously. A key component of COVID-10 tests is sourced from Yellowstone’s thermal pools, according to National Geographic.

Nat Geo tells the story of microbiologist Thomas Brock’s trip to Yellowstone National Park in the 1960s—a trip that “changed the course of biomedical history.” While there, he and a student were closely examining Mushroom Spring when they stumbled across “golden mats of stringy growth” that contained a microbe, which was producing astonishing heat-resistant enzymes.

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Fast forward to present day, and those very same enzymes are an instrumental component in a method known as polymerase chain reaction (PCR), in which molecular biologists use to quickly create millions (even billions) of a particular DNA sample. Basically, this method gave scientists the ability to take one very small sample of DNA and augment it to be large enough to study in much greater detail.

Currently, the majority of tests being used to diagnose COVID-19 are employing this very same method by boosting the signal of viruses, reports Nat Geo. This process would not have even existed without the discovery from Brock and his student, Hudson Freeze, at Yellowstone more than 50 years ago, in the 1960s.

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The way the story goes, Brock first visited the park having never seen a hot spring before. This visit piqued his fascination to learn more about the microbes that were living in these hot thermal pools. He wanted to learn more about the type of life that can survive in extreme temperatures. On a follow-up trip the next year, he discovered some gelatinous mass in Octopus Spring where the water is known to reach 190 degrees Fahrenheit. One year later, Brock returned with Freeze to dive deeper into the cyanobacteria they found in Mushroom Spring. The discovery of Thermus aquaticus would eventually go on to change the molecular biology game by introducing a new way to examine DNA.

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Given the resilience of Thermus aquaticus, scientists could go through several processes of heating and cooling (without killing the enzyme) in a much quicker way. This significantly sped up the whole process, making PCR testing a much more viable method for studying DNA. Currently, most COVID-19 tests employ this same method, and it’s all thanks to a casual visit to one of the most iconic national parks in the United States.

h/t National Geographic.

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