The Life and Legacy of Thomas Brock
On April 4, 2021, renowned American microbiologist Thomas Brock passed away at age 94. Brock is best remembered for discovering and isolating Thermus aquaticus, a type of heat-resistant bacteria that makes our work here at BioFire Diagnostics possible.
During his career, Brock conducted revolutionary field and laboratory work on thermophilic microorganisms, which thrive at extremely high temperatures. His scientific research and discoveries catalyzed immense progress in the fields of medicine, agriculture, and biotechnology—including PCR-based infectious disease diagnostics solutions like the BioFire® FilmArray® System.
Discovering Thermus aquaticus
In the 1960s, Brock and other scientists began studying the living organisms found in geothermal hot springs, including thermophilic bacteria. Brock was particularly fascinated by the algae he found thriving in the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park because they proved that life could be sustained even in temperatures high above the boiling point of water. In 1966, Brock and a colleague discovered temperature-resistant bacteria thriving in the Mushroom Spring in the Lower Great Basin region of Yellowstone. Brock isolated a sample of this bacteria and named it Thermus aquaticus.
Previously, it was believed that bacteria could not survive extreme heat. Thermus aquaticus, on the other hand, thrives best at a temperature of 158 degrees Fahrenheit (70 degrees Celsius).1 Brock’s discovery of Thermus aquaticus later led to the development of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technology, which uses rapid temperature cycling to exponentially amplify genetic material for analysis and manipulation.
The Foundation of PCR
About twenty years after its discovery by Thomas Brock, Thermus aquaticus lay the foundation for the invention of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technology by scientist Kary Mullis. A polymerase chain reaction requires the use of an enzyme that triggers the thermal cycling process that amplifies the genetic material. Each cycle of PCR doubles the amount of starting genetic material by rapidly heating and cooling the sample.
Taq polymerase is the specific enzyme used in PCR. The source of this enzyme is Thermus aquaticus because it can withstand the extreme temperature changes required by the thermal cycling process, eliminating the need to add a new temperature-stable enzyme after each cycle of PCR.
How PCR Powers BioFire Syndromic Testing
The BioFire System runs syndromic infectious disease diagnostic tests, which use multiplex PCR technology to isolate, amplify, and detect the nucleic acid of targeted microorganisms. Results from a BioFire diagnostic test are fast, accurate, and comprehensive, helping healthcare providers improve patient management.
PCR is more relevant than ever with the widespread use of PCR-based COVID-19 tests, including the FDA De Novo authorized BioFire® Respiratory 2.1 Panel, which tests for SARS-CoV-2 and 21 other respiratory pathogens. The BioFire RP2.1 Panel and other syndromic panels that run on the BioFire System have provided a much-needed diagnostic solution not only for the pandemic, but for respiratory seasons to come. Without Thomas Brock’s groundbreaking discovery of Thermus aquaticus and the subsequent invention of PCR, our syndromic testing work here at BioFire would not be possible.
- Brock T, et al. Thermus aquaticus gen. n. and sp. n., a nonsporulating extreme thermophile. J Bacteriol. 1969;98(1):289-297.