Clark Cunningham is a senior biochemistry and biology major from Chapel Hill.
When Thomas Brock and his undergraduate assistant Hudson Freeze traveled to Yellowstone in the ‘60s, they were searching for bacteria capable of living in hot springs .
They had no idea that what they would find would revolutionize the life sciences. Their discovery would have practical applications from HIV testing to the exoneration of death row inmates.
In science, major advances can arise from unlikely sources, and the importance of a research endeavor is not always immediately apparent.
This is especially so with basic research, or the pursuit of knowledge without a direct application in mind. This is in contrast to applied research, which is concerned with achieving practical ends.
As a result of its emphasis on discovery rather than utility, basic research is often unappreciated and belittled as the musings of eccentric professors. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Basic research serves as the foundation for future inquiries and can lead to applications that change the world.
No story better illustrates the potential of basic research than that of Brock and Freeze.
What they discovered was Thermus aquaticus (Taq), a small, rod-shaped bacterium thriving in Yellowstone’s hot springs. The story could have ended there if not for the curiosity of other scientists who sought to identify the properties that allowed Taq to survive in such a harsh environment.
Research published in 1976 revealed Taq contained a robust type of polymerase — a protein all cells use to copy DNA — that remains stable at high temperatures.
Finally, in 1983 , building on over a decade of basic research beforehand, Kary Mullis discovered that Taq polymerase could exponentially copy DNA in a test tube in a process known as Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR). This was revolutionary: Taq polymerase’s heat tolerance allowed the process to be automated, making what was once a laborious task accessible to laboratories everywhere.
In the years since its invention, PCR has transformed the landscape of the modern life sciences. PCR enables scientists to isolate and study genes and proteins like never before.
In medicine, PCR can be used to amplify bacterial or viral DNA found in the bloodstream for diagnostic testing. PCR can also detect variants of genes that signal an increased risk of developing diseases such as breast cancer. Forensic PCR can determine an individual’s identity from a tiny DNA sample, with implications in paternity testing, genealogy and criminal justice.
In recognition of the profound impact of PCR, Mullis shared the 1993 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. In hindsight, none of this could have been possible without the basic research published by Brock and Freeze in 1969. At the time, nobody could have predicted in their wildest dreams what would become of their seemingly obscure discovery.
But such is the case with basic research; you never know what you will find until you look.