Who is binge-watching crime shows right now? Did you know that the forensic technology that is used in home DNA testing kits and forensic labs around the world exists because of a tiny organism, discovered in Yellowstone National Park, called Thermus aquaticus?
The DNA of T. aquaticus does not denature (or breakdown) in the hot pools in which it lives, in Yellowstone. Most organisms and the enzymes which hold their DNA strands together cannot withstand temperatures greater than 162*F (learn more about Pasteurization and the role it plays in food safety). But T. aquaticus can withstand those hot temperatures.
The glue that holds T. aquaticus' DNA strands together, an enzyme called polymerase, has been cultivated in labs around the world. Today, when DNA samples are collected, the DNA is mixed with Taq polymerase (T. aquaticus' glue) and heated to 95*C (just a few degrees shy of 212*F, the boiling point for water, at sea level). The DNA sample replicates like crazy (known as the polymerase chain reaction), providing a large enough sample for scientists to observe and measure the unique genetic 'fingerprint' of the sample.
The DNA sample is then injected into an agar medium (a Jello-like goo, also a common crossword clue!). The agar is zapped with an electrical current, and the DNA sample acts as the conduit (the 'wire' that completes the electrical circuit). As the DNA sample oozes its way through the agar, the different weighted fragments of DNA leave impressions (fingerprints) behind. Just like a detective dusts for fingerprints, a bit of stain is added to the agar, and the scientist can visually observe the unique genetic markers, for that sample of DNA. This part of the process is called Gel Electrophoresis.
The unknown sample of DNA can then be compared to known samples. This is the basic science that is being used to test patients for COVID-19.
Think about the millions of people, who have taken at-home genetic sampling tests, such as 23andMe ... We can trace our biological connections to one another, through a tiny organism found in Yellowstone National Park.
Looking for a fun and delicious, at-home science project to learn about enzymes and DNA? Check out: https://www.mrsec.psu.edu/content/unlocking-role-enzymes-dna-reproduction
MSU Biochemistry 221
Encyclopedia Brittanica: Thermus Aquaticus, Taq Polymerase
Wikipedia: Pasteurization, Gel Electrophoresis
Enzymes: PennState Center for Nano Scale Science