From Unknown Bacteria To Biotechnology Breakthrough

Today’s post is by Andrea Widener, a government and policy writer for C&EN and lover of obscure science. Microbiologist Tom Brock’s first forays into Yellowstone National Park to seek out life in its hot springs are just the kind of basic research that sometimes gets ridiculed by politicians. In an effort to end government waste, some of these public servants like to make examples out of federally funded research that seems irrelevant or that doesn’t have immediate applications.
Brock still likes to get out and about: Here, he takes a stroll at the Pleasant Valley Conservancy, in Black Earth, Wisc. Credit: Jeff Miller/UW-Madison

Brock still likes to get out and about: Here, he takes a stroll at the Pleasant Valley Conservancy, in Black Earth, Wisc. Credit: Jeff Miller/UW-Madison

In the 1960s, when Brock hiked into Yellowstone, “we didn’t know there were organisms that could live in boiling water,” the microbiologist says. So he couldn’t have known he would find a heat-seeking bacterium that would become central to modern-day DNA technology. That discovery, funded by the National Science Foundation, earned Brock a Golden Goose Award last week. Here at Newscripts, we wrote about the original founding of the Golden Goose Awards last year. Other awards, like the Ig Nobel prizes given out last week (see Newscripts' coverage here), also seek out the obscure, but the goal of the Golden Goose is to point out the seemingly irrelevant, but federally funded, research that has gone on to make an important difference. “We’ve all read stories about the study with the wacky title, the research project from left field,” says Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), who first proposed the awards. “But off-the-wall science yields medical miracles. We can’t abandon research funding only because we can’t predict how the next miracle will happen.” What Brock and undergraduate Hudson Freeze found in 1966 in Yellowstone’s Mushroom Spring was the bacteria Thermus aquaticus. The heat-loving bacteria produces an enzyme, Taq polymerase, that is now essential to polymerase chain reaction (PCR), a technique that amplifies DNA and is used in genome sequencing, forensics, and diagnosis of genetic disorders. “We were looking for a simple system where one could do basic research in microbial ecology. Everything fell out of that,” Brock says. But Brock’s basic research wasn’t the only one honored with a Golden Goose last week. Mathematicians Lloyd Shapley and David Gale, with economist Alvin Roth, were also recognized for their efforts to design a program that would make the perfect marriage match. The deferred choice algorithm, supported in 1962 by the Office of Naval Research, was designed by Gale and Shapley to maximize marriage stability, so that each man or woman was paired with the best possible mate. That seemingly frivolous area of study seems sure to draw Congressional ire today. But the theoretical application led to other matching programs that do important work. With funding from NSF, Roth designed a system that matches kidney recipients with potential donors. He also came up with several school choice programs, including the one that matches medical students with residencies. Too bad no one has come up with a better way to choose a more science-friendly Congress. To read about last year’s Golden Goose Awards, check them out here.

Author: Sophia Cai

Share This Post On