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Kary B. Mullis (1944 - )

Once in a while in the world of science, there comes an idea or a tool so ingenious that it revolutionizes the way people ask questions. Polymerase chain reaction, better known as PCR, is one of these technologies. It has not only made a tremendous impact on the scientific community, but it has also affected many aspects of our everyday lives.

Polymerase chain reaction is a technique that amplifies DNA, enabling scientists to make millions - or even billions - of copies of a DNA molecule in a very short time. PCR has been used to detect DNA sequences, to diagnose genetic diseases, to carry out DNA fingerprinting, to detect bacteria or viruses (particularly the AIDS virus), and to research human evolution. It has even been used to clone the DNA of an Egyptian mummy!

Who is the genius behind this revolutionary technology? He is a scientist and surfer from Newport Beach, California, named Kary Mullis. Mullis, considered an "intellectual maverick" by many, won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1993 for developing PCR. A native of South Carolina, he received a bachelor's degree in Chemistry from Georgia Tech and a Ph.D. in Biochemistry from U.C. Berkeley. His Ph.D. thesis was entitled, "Schizokinen: Structure and Synthetic Work," in which he described a molecule involved in bacterial iron transport. While a doctoral candidate, he published and article entitled "The Cosmological Significance of Time Reversal" (Nature 218:663(1968)) which deals with his notion that about half of the mass in the universe is going backward in time.

After graduation and several post-doctoral tours, he worked as a scientist for the Cetus Corporation of Emeryville, California, in the 1970s, during which time he conceived and developed the idea of PCR. The idea was not the product of a painstaking laboratory discipline, but was conceived while cruising in a Honda Civic on Highway 128 from San Francisco to Mendocino.

"I do my best thinking while driving," the scientist with the tanned face and bleached hair once explained. For this brilliant idea born at the speed of 50 m.p.h., he received a $10,000 bonus from Cetus, with whom he eventually parted ways. (Cetus later sold the technolgy to LaRoche for $300,000,000.) He now lives in a small apartment across from Windansea Beach, a surfing spot made famous by Tom Wolfe's novel, "The Pump House Gang." A man interested in many things in life besides molecular biology and surfing, he has refused to team up with the biotechnology industry or academia. Currently, he consults and lectures around the world about biotechnology or the development of the scientific method, its successes and its failures.

Updated: March 2002

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