Thermus Aquaticus: Some Like it Hot

Biological discoveries throughout the last few decades have been given a hearty helping hand by a thermophilic single celled micro-organism called “Thermus Aquaticus”.

Belonging to the group “Deinoccocus Thermus,” Thermus Aquaticus is an extremophile, (an organism which thrives in extreme environments including areas of high temperature and pressure) and can be found in areas including natural hot springs, hydrothermal vents, thermally polluted domestic and industrial waters and even hot taps.

Along with providing us with information about the various conditions on earth within which life is possible, Thermus Aquaticus has also facilitated many of the scientific developments that have revolutionised fields including pharma and agricultural research and even played a part in the creation of the field of biotechnology.

The heat loving bacteria were first discovered by Dr Thomas Brock in the 1960’s as he was studying Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park with his (aptly named) colleague Hudson Freeze, both from Indiana University.

Dr Thomas Brock (2002)

Thriving in temperatures of 212 Fahrenheit, the bacteria were found living in water which is almost at boiling point. This ability means that a protein enzyme that was later isolated from Thermus Aquaticus was highly thermostable.

Taq polymerase was first extracted and stabilised from Thermus Aquaticus in 1976 by Chien et al, meaning that PCR automation was possible and the process of copying huge amounts of a single targeted piece of DNA could be significantly streamlined.

It quickly replaced DNA polymerase from E. Coli, previously widely used in PCR since Kary Mullis developed the process.

The main reasons that make Thermus aquaticus (Taq) perfect for DNA sequencing are that it’s active across a wide range of temperatures and as such is able to withstand the protein denaturing necessary during PCR so that PCR cycles can be automated, since the polymerase doesn’t need to be added for each cycle. It’s also widely accepted as one of the most versatile and consistent polymerase enzymes available.

It works by moving along the strand of DNA and using it as a template for building a brand new strand which has been marked by a primer into a new, double stranded segment of DNA.

The speed with which this can be done then allows huge amounts of DNA to be replicated, enabling applications such as the mapping done as part of the Human Genome Project, DNA fingerprinting, diagnosis of infectious and inherited diseases and a myriad of other, often life changing and life saving practices.

So, much is owed to this tiny archaea’s love of hot, soggy environments – The enjoyment of a hot bath may not have been this fruitful since Archimedes sloshed his radox all over the floor. Thanks Thermus Aquaticus!

A photograph of hot springs like those in Yellowstone where Thermus Aquaticus was first discovered

Thermus Aquaticus Facts
  • In 1989 Science Magazine called Taq polymerase it’s first ever “Molecule of the Year”
  • The use of Taq polymerase with PCR was deemed so lucrative that Hoffman La Roche paid over $300 million for world rights to the technique and royalties may have reached up to $2 billion
  • The technique has been used in fields including genomics, agriculture, animal behaviour, forensics and in the study of infectious diseases like HIV
  • Thomas Brock went on to win The Golden Goose award for his discovery of Thermus Aquaticus in 2013 due to the exceptional developments and all that has been made possible as a result of his discovery and the subsequent isolation of the Taq polymerase enzyme

To play us out here’s a delightful musical number by Jacob Godbey, enjoy!

Taq Polymerase Products Available to Purchase

PCR Master Mix HotShot Diamond

ALLin TAQ DNA Polymerase

ALLin™ Hot Start Taq Polymerase, 5 u/µ

Taq DNA Polymerase, 5 u/µl

References & Links

DNA sequencing with Thermus aquaticus DNA polymerase and direct sequencing of polymerase chain reaction-amplified DNA

Thermus Aqaticus – An Overview: Encyclopedia of Life

E. Van Pelt-Verkuil et al., Principles and Technical Aspects of PCR Amplification, Springer Science (2008)