A composite image. Left image of DNA data. Center image of a woman in a white lab coat wearing gloves using lab equipment to transfer cells. Right image of a thermal feature in Yellowstone National Park.

PCR: The Technology That Launched Biotechnology

Today's biotechnology sector traces its roots to NSF-powered research on extreme bacteria that thrive in hot springs.

The advent of polymerase chain reaction technology (PCR) led to technological advances that continue to shape modern life — new medical drugs, diagnostic testing for diseases, forensic identification from tiny bits of DNA, and more. 

This widespread technology has unlikely origins, starting with a moment of curiosity at Yellowstone National Park. 

Brock at mushroom pool
Mushroom Pool, in the Lower Geyser Basin of Yellowstone National Park, as it looked in June 23, 1967.

Credit: Thomas Brock

Serendipity at Yellowstone

In 1964, a microbiologist made a rest stop at Yellowstone during a long drive. While there, he bumped into a park ranger at a hot spring teeming with algae and bacteria.

Wondering how life could flourish in such a harsh environment, with temperatures hovering around 160 degrees Fahrenheit (70 Celsius), he later applied for funding to explore the "extremophiles" that call Yellowstone's hot springs home.

NSF funding spurs a "hot" discovery

Under a three-year grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation, the research team was able to isolate a bacterium that they named Thermus aquaticus.

A decade later, scientists isolated the bacterium's exceptionally heat tolerant DNA polymerase — an enzyme that is critical to DNA replication — and named it Taq.

Taq became the basis for PCR, a procedure that replicates DNA with exceptional efficiency and precision.

Polymerase chain reaction is one of the most common research tools in the biological and medical sciences. PCR rapidly makes billions of copies of complete or partial DNA samples, enabling researchers to analyze their DNA code. PCR relies on cycles of heating and cooling to make these copies, which is where heat stable Taq comes in handy.

A student in a laboratory wearing a lab coat and goggles.
An Austin Community College student prepares a solution needed to purify Taq polymerase.

Credit: Advanced Technological Education

Close-up of a gloved hand pipetting liquid into small test tubes
A new technique developed by MIT engineers analyzes the 3D organization of the genome at a resolution 100 times higher than before.

Credit: Melanie Gonick/MIT

From humble origins to a multibillion-dollar industry

PCR quickly opened new horizons in research and sparked the creation of the field of biotechnology. More than 40 years after that chance encounter in Yellowstone, PCR is still fueling discoveries in labs around the globe.

No one could have predicted that one little extremophile in a hot spring would revolutionize the course of research.