Twenty-five years ago, New Zealand researchers Roy Daniel and Hugh Morgan made an arduous six-week expedition across sea, ice, and snow in search of thermophilic bacteria on the volcanic slopes of Mount Erebus, the world's most southerly active volcano. Erebus rises some 3,660 meters from Ross Island, in the icy oceans near Antarctica. As the two men made their way to within 90 meters of the summit, they battled temperatures that dropped to -35ºC (-31ºF), with a wind chill that made it feel like -70ºC (-94ºF).
While the air was bitterly cold, the algae-covered soil the men were sampling was warm to the touch, courtesy of underground vents. The ground was stripped of snow and ice, and reached a surprisingly warm 70ºC (158ºF) just inches below the surface. That made sampling tricky. "You could, in theory, stick your finger into extremely hot soil and almost have your thumb getting frostbite from the wind chill," says Morgan, a Welsh-born microbiologist who moved to New Zealand in the 1970s.
The men strapped a collection of samples close to their bodies to keep them from freezing, then were taken by helicopter back to New Zealand's Scott Base, the Antarctic's largest settlement, and then by military Hercules aircraft back to New Zealand.
Daniel and Morgan have been collaborating since the 1970s on building a collection of extremophiles from places such as Yellowstone Park, the geysers of Rotorua on New Zealand's North Island, and Iceland. At Erebus, "we were shooting in the dark," Morgan says. "Given the conditions that exist in that area, we thought there was a chance of finding something interesting."
That "something interesting" became apparent when the pair received a call in their University of Waikato lab in the early 1990s from collaborators at nearby Auckland University who were in urgent need of a heat-stable protease to help extract DNA from samples. "They were finding that existing methods were either very good at extracting DNA but extremely tedious, or fast but not very good," explains Daniel, another British import who arrived in Waikato a few years after Morgan.
After a few false starts, the two settled on the Bacillus strain, dubbed EA1, they'd dug from the humid soil of Erebus back in 1981. "It had this enzyme which was ostensibly very stable but could be easily destabilized in the right solution conditions," Morgan explains. "We thought to ourselves, 'Hey, this is like having a switch to turn it on or off.' It dawned on us that there are a lot of applications where it would be valuable to be able to do that."
The Waikato and Auckland researchers formed a startup, now known as ZyGEM, to exploit the potential of the enzyme. The company has recently begun marketing EA1's heat-stabile protease for applications such as forensics. According to the company, the protease forms the basis of an easily automated, closed-tube DNA extraction procedure that works easily with most DNA substrates, speeds DNA extraction times, and greatly reduces contamination risks. In mid-February, ZyGEM announced that it had inked a deal with its first commercial customer, New Zealand's Livestock Improvement Corporation, which will use the single-tube DNA extraction process to determine the lineages of cows, deer, and sheep.
The real goal, however, is to develop forensic science applications that would allow police to start processing samples at a crime scene in real time. With that in mind, ZyGEM is collaborating with New Zealand's Environmental Science and Research, the sole forensic science provider to the New Zealand Police and custodian of the New Zealand criminal DNA databank.
So far, ZyGEM hasn't made the two researchers rich, but it has had its rewards. "It's certainly a career highlight to have something successfully go from the lab bench to market," says Morgan. The pleasure is all the more sweet because it came, adds Daniel, "not from inspiration, but a hell of a lot of hard work."