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27. Hot Springs Bacterium Discovery Key to DNA Fingerprinting - Nifty 50

DNA helix model

Support from NSF in basic biological research was critical to the discovery of a microbe's enzyme that makes modern DNA fingerprinting possible.

DNA fingerprinting has enabled the legal community to identify, with unprecedented accuracy, a suspect's involvement in a crime, or to demonstrate the innocence of wrongly accused individuals.

Unique identifiers

DNA fingerprints are sequences of DNA molecules that are unique to each individual.The patterns of these sequences can be identified when tiny amounts of DNA are amplified with a technique known as the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR). PCR uses DNA polymerase, an enzyme that assembles DNA chains over many cycles of heating and cooling.

Most DNA polymerase cannot withstand high temperatures. But NSF-supported research discovered a bacterium (Thermus aquaticus), in hot springs at Yellowstone National Park. Separate research to develop a heat-resistant DNA polymerase was pursued in the private or commercial sector.


That discovery enabled the commercial sector to pioneer PCR and its ability to amplify millions of copies of DNA in a matter of hours. PCR has subsequently become an essential tool of DNA analysis for forensic and other identification uses.

These techniques are also used to track endangered species and determine the source of possibly illegally hunted animals. Research on heat-tolerant microbes has also led to development of enzymes for nonpolluting detergents.

Original publication date: April 2000

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