Bioprospecting in the hot springs at Yellowstone led to one of the most valuable techniques for DNA analysis used in biochemistry and medicine.
Humans have long turned to nature to improve their lives. For thousands of years, people used the bark of a willow tree to relieve pain; the bark happens to contains salicylic acid, the precursor to aspirin. In the days of Roman emperors, the dye for their purple togas came from sea snails harvested from the Mediterranean Sea. The modern wonder drug, penicillin, which cures bacterial infections and diseases, was derived from bread mold.
The modern term for exploring nature to find substances or processes to benefit humanity is bioprospecting, and often the current focus is on microorganisms. One of the most important bioprospecting discoveries came from the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park.
Extremophiles are organisms that survive under severe conditions of temperature or pH. In the 1960s, Thomas Brock studied extremophiles in the Yellowstone hot springs and identified an organism he named Thermus aquaticus, which thrived at temperatures far above what most organisms could tolerate. In 1985, scientists isolated an enzyme called Taq polymerase from Thermus aquaticus, which has become essential in the newly developed Polymerase Chain Reaction technique, or PCR, a method of analyzing DNA.
DNA strands are very small and thus difficult to study, unless a researcher has substantial quantities of the material. PCR made it possible to make many copies of an original DNA strand. But as the procedure operated at high temperature, the original enzymes decomposed rapidly and had to be replaced frequently throughout the study. Taq polymerase, coming from an organism that flourished at high temperatures, did not decompose, and thus the entire PCR process became more efficient. PCR, used to study genes, has become a vital technique in medical and biological research labs that study hereditary diseases, test for paternity and evaluate DNA fingerprints for forensic science. Kary Mullis and Michael Smith shared the 1993 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work on PCR.
Bioprospecting nature’s versatile resources to benefit our lives provides a strong argument to maintain and protect the world’s biodiversity.
More information about bioprospecting at Yellowstone National Park may be found at http://www.nature.nps.gov/benefitssharing/whatis.cfm