Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Thomas Brock: Microbiologist

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Nature of Science, History of Science

Ed Hessler 

Thermophiles, more specifically, thermophile bacteria. Maybe you've heard of them.

The discoverer of thermophile bacteria, Thomas Brock, died in early April from complications following a fall. He was 94.

The Scientist published an obituary about his distinguished career by Lisa Winter. While doing field work in Yellowstone National Park Brock, as chance would have it, got out of his car and overheard a park ranger who was leading an interpretive talk that the color in the thermal pool was due to blue-green algae. "'I got interested right away.'"

Winter writes, "Brock returned to Yellowstone over the next few years to better understand its microbial life, and in 1966 identified a bacterial species he named Thermus aquaticus, which lived at temperatures of around 70 °C. The following year, Brock published his observations about life in hot springs in (the scientific journal) Science challenging the assumption of the day that life couldn’t exist at temperatures that high." 

The discovery opened the door to the now-famous polymerase chain reaction (PCR). "An enzyme T. aquaticus uses to replicate DNA in high temperatures" was later found and this in turn led to create PCR. And the rest, as is said, is history.

Following retirement Brock became in interested in understanding "the decline of oak barrens throughout the Midwest." The obituary includes a 3m 39s video in which Brock talks about his discovery and its later impact. This interest started when he and his wife created the Pleasant Valley Conservancy State Natural Area (WI). This link describes the preserve and also includes a blog by Brock and a history of his life.

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