MADISON Over time, the esoteric and sometimes downright strange quests of science have proven easy targets for politicians and others looking for perceived examples of waste in government and a cheap headline.
In 1966, microbiologist Tom Brock's National Science Foundation-supported treks to Yellowstone National Park to study life in the park's thermal springs might easily have been singled out as yet another feckless science project, deserving of a "Golden Fleece Award."
But Brock, then a professor at Indiana University, and Hudson Freeze, an undergraduate student working with Brock at Mushroom Spring in the Lower Geyser Basin of Yellowstone, found something that by any measure validates investments in basic science, the undirected search for new knowledge.
At the time, Brock was simply interested in studying the microbial ecology of the thermal springs that make Yellowstone famous. It was a frontier of knowledge as scientific dogma held that life, or at least photosynthetic life, could not occur at temperatures above 160 degrees Fahrenheit.
But to their astonishment, Brock and Freeze found a bacterium, later dubbed Thermus aquaticus, that made its entire living in the scalding waters of Mushroom Spring. The discovery set the stage for the branch of science that studies life in extreme environments and, most tangibly, yielded an enzyme, Taq polymerase, that is central to the technology for amplifying DNA revolutionizing everything from medical diagnostics to criminal forensics.
"We were looking for a simple system where one could do basic research in microbial ecology. Everything fell out of that," recalls Brock, now an emeritus professor of bacteriology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "We didn't know there were these organisms that could live in boiling water."
Now, almost 40 years after discovering and describing the organism, Brock and Freeze are being recognized with the Golden Goose
|Contact: Tom Brock|
University of Wisconsin-Madison