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How A Heat-Seeking Bacterium Enabled The Genetics Revolution

Aired 9/17/13 on KPBS News.

Hudson Freeze might have a chilly last name, but this week, he'll receive an award for finding something hot. An unusual bacterium he helped discover in the late '60s went on to catalyze a biotech boom and enabled modern genetic sequencing.

Hudson Freeze might have a chilly last name, but this week he's being honored for finding something hot.

On Thursday, the San Diego scientist will be one of the recipients in this year's Golden Goose Awards. The prize aims to spotlight basic research that ends up having a huge economic and human impact.

Sanford Burnham

As a genetics researcher, Hudson Freeze now uses technology made possible by his earlier discovery of a heat-loving bacterium.

Freeze currently directs the Genetic Disease Program at Sanford Burnham Medical Research Institute in La Jolla. But in 1969, he was a 20-year-old undergraduate helping out on a research trip to Yellowstone National Park. Working with Indiana University professor Thomas Brock, he discovered an unusual kind of bacterium.

Thermus aquaticus was notable because it thrives in very hot water. Freeze said at the time he was just excited to find such a strange specimen.

"I was a kid who was happy to go Yellowstone and then get back in the lab and see these bacteria swimming around," he recalled. "And that's as far as I took it when I was an undergraduate."

Freeze never imagined how useful this bacterium would turn out to be. It yields an enzyme that has turned out be a crucial ingredient in a process called polymerase chain reaction (PCR). By allowing scientists to amplify tiny amounts of DNA, the procedure facilitated a biotech boom and enabled modern genetic sequencing.

In reflecting on some of his earliest research, Freeze worries about the current state of funding for U.S. scientists.

"Nobody would've funded this," Freeze said about his Yellowstone expedition. Subjected to today's scrutiny, he thinks the grant wouldn't have come through "because it has no application, you have no idea what you're going to find. We were very lucky to get it funded back then. The climate is not like that now."

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