M.Microbiologist Thomas Brock, whose bacterial discovery led to the development of a transformation technique for molecular biology, died on April 4 at the age of 94. Brock’s wife Katherine tells The New York Times that the cause of death was complications after a fall.
Brock was born in 1926 and grew up in Ohio near Lake Erie. He developed a love for nature at an early age. His parents encouraged his curiosity about science, and after spending a year in the US Navy during World War II, he attended Ohio State University for a bachelor’s degree in botany and then earned a master’s and doctorate in mycology, also in Ohio State.
After working in industry for several years, Brock accepted an apprenticeship at Indiana University in 1960. In 1964, his field study took him to Yellowstone National Park, where he was immediately attracted to the microbes living in the hot springs.
“I got out of the car and a ranger happened to be giving a lecture near a thermal bath,” Brock later recalled in an interview with the National Park Service. “I saw all these colors and he said they were blue-green algae. I was immediately interested. “
Brock returned to Yellowstone over the next several years to better understand his microbial life and in 1966 identified a type of bacteria he named Thermus aquaticuswho lived at temperatures of around 70 ° C. The following year Brock published his observations on hot spring life in scienceand challenged the day’s assumption that life could not exist at such high temperatures.
“It is therefore impossible to conclude that there is an” upper life temperature “,” Brock wrote in the newspaper.
In 1976 cell biologist Alice Chien discovered Taq, an enzyme that T. aquaticus used to replicate its DNA at high temperatures. A decade later, the biochemist Kary used Mullis Taq To generate polymerase chain reaction or PCR. PCR relies on a thermal cycle to copy DNA and amplify certain genes when they are present in a sample. It is one of the most widely used techniques in molecular biology and biomedical research and forms the basis for gold standard tests for COVID-19. In 1993, Mullis shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Michael Smith for developing PCR.
In 1971 Brock left the IU at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he stayed until his retirement in 1990. In the 1980s he was chairman of the bacteriology department for three years. He wrote many books on microbiology.
When he retired, he and his wife founded the Pleasant Valley Conservancy State on 140 acres in Wisconsin. In addition to preserving the area’s wilderness, Brock also wanted to use the site to better understand the decline of oak bars throughout the Midwest.
“He had an encyclopedic knowledge of microbiology and science in general,” says Stephen Zinder, a microbiologist who trained at Brock in the 1970s Times. “I think his real ability was just to see things and to find simple techniques to find out what the organisms were doing around them.”
Brock is survived by his wife Katherine, daughter Emily, and son Brian.
Thomas Brock remembers his discovery of Thermus aquaticus and its subsequent implications for the development of PCR.
University of Wisconsin-Madison