COVID-19 tests rely on bacteria discovered in a natural pool in the 1960s - and it’s not the only slice of nature essential to medicine

A tour group is seen on Geyser Hill Boardwalks at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, U.S., January 28, 2019.

Thermus aquaticus is a great illustration of just how resilient life on Earth can be. Image: Reuters/Jacob W. Frank

Sean Fleming
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  • PCR tests for COVID-19 are only effective due to a bacteria discovered in the 1960s in Yellowstone National Park.
  • The microbes can withstand temperature changes, holding chains of DNA stable while the test is processed.
  • The natural world is an important source of medicines - the horseshoe crab and the Pacific Yew tree are vital ingredients for vaccinations and cancer treatment.
  • But they are under threat from over-harvesting.
  • The cost of not protecting our natural world will cost us $479 billion per year, says the WWF.

More than one billion COVID-19 tests have been carried out by just five countries. Together, the US, India, the UK, Italy and Turkey had conducted 1.046 billion tests by 20 May, 2021, according to Our World in Data.

Billions of COVID-19 tests worldwide rely on the Thermus aquaticus bacteria.
Billions of COVID-19 tests worldwide rely on the Thermus aquaticus bacteria. Image: Our World in Data

That achievement is due, in part, to a single-cell microbe discovered more than 55 years ago in the Yellowstone National Park, which spreads across the US states of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. It was there, in the mid-1960s, that the microbiologist Thomas Brock collected samples of water from Mushroom Pool, which is a large spring found among the park’s famous geysers.

He found a strain of bacteria that was able to survive the almost-boiling waters of Mushroom Pool. The organism was eventually named Thermus aquaticus. Its ability to withstand temperature fluctuations made it ideal for a number of medical testing requirements.

Thomas Brock discovered bacteria at Mushroom Pool, Yellowstone, in the 1960s that is now used in the PCR test for COVID-19.
Thomas Brock discovered bacteria at Mushroom Pool, Yellowstone, in the 1960s that is now used in the PCR test for COVID-19. Image: Brock, Thomas. Public domain

One in particular is the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test for COVID-19. The PCR involves a swab from a patient’s throat and/or nose, which is then sent to a lab where it is heated and cooled repeatedly to copy the DNA within the sample. Thermus aquaticus is used to hold the DNA sequences together, and because it has no problem with high and low temperatures, the thermal cycling needed to grow the DNA chain can be carried out rapidly.

Nature helps us...

Thermus aquaticus is a great illustration of just how resilient life on Earth can be. Even in one of the most inhospitable environments, life is present.

It is also an indication of the extent to which life is interconnected and interdependent and why it is so important to work hard to reverse decades of environmental damage – before it’s too late.

Anyone who has received any vaccination at all probably owes a debt of gratitude to the humble horseshoe crab. This odd-looking sea creature is often referred to as a living fossil, having been around for 450 million years or so. It’s blood is odd-looking too – it is bright blue. The crabs’ blood contains a clotting agent that reacts vigorously to the presence of infection, and has been used extensively in vaccine safety tests since the 1970s.

Many people living with diabetes can send their thanks to the Gila monster – a black and orange lizard found in the arid parts of Mexico and the Southwestern US. The reptile’s saliva contains a hormone called exendin-4 which has been shown to help patients with type 2 diabetes. A synthesized version of exendin-4, called Exenatide, is administered in a prefilled pen for twice-daily injections.


How does the World Economic Forum encourage biological diversity?

Now we must help nature...

One of the most effective chemotherapy drugs in the treatment of breast cancer is paclitaxel. It is also widely used in the treatment of other cancers. Paclitaxel comes from the bark of the Pacific Yew tree. Commonly sold as Taxol, the drug became the bestselling cancer drug of all time in 2000.

The Pacific Yew tree also provides a stark illustration of why the preservation of natural habitats is so important. Cancer remains one of the leading causes of death, claiming around 10 million lives in 2020, according to the World Health Organization. Demand for cancer drugs is at a constant high, which in the case of the Pacific Yew has led to widespread overharvesting. So much so that it has been declared an endangered species.

The economic value of nature has been suggested to be worth around $125 trillion, by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). WWF has also calculated the cost of not protecting our natural world to be in the region of $479 billion per year, or a cumulative $10 trillion by 2050.

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