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Kary Banks Mullis (*)

Kary Banks Mullis (born December 28, 1944) is an American biochemist and Nobel laureate. Mullis shared the 1993 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Michael Smith. Mullis received the prize for his development of the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR), a process first described by Kjell Kleppe and 1968 Nobel laureate H. Gobind Khorana that allows the amplification of specific DNA sequences.[1] The improvements provided by Mullis have made PCR a central technique in biochemistry and molecular biology. Mullis also received the Japan Prize in 1993.

Early life and education

Mullis was born in Lenoir, North Carolina, near the Blue Ridge Mountains,[2] on December 28, 1944. His family had a background in farming in this rural area. As a child, Mullis recalls, he was interested in observing biological organisms in the countryside.[1] He grew up in Columbia, South Carolina,[1] where he attended Dreher High School.

Mullis earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry[2] from the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta in 1966, during which time he got married and started a business.[3] He then received a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of California, Berkeley in 1972; his research focused on synthesis and structure of proteins.[1] Following his graduation, Mullis became a postdoctoral fellow in pediatric cardiology at the University of Kansas Medical School, going on to complete two years of postdoctoral work in pharmaceutical chemistry at the University of California, San Francisco.


After receiving his PhD, Mullis left science to write fiction, but quit and became a biochemist at a medical school in Kansas City.[3] He then managed a bakery for two years.[4] Mullis returned to science at the encouragement of friend Thomas White, who later got Mullis a job with the biotechnology company Cetus Corporation of Emeryville, California.[1][4] Mullis worked as a DNA chemist at Cetus for seven years; it was there, in 1983, that Mullis invented his prize-winning improvements to the polymerase chain reaction.[5] After leaving Cetus in 1986, Mullis served as director of molecular biology for Xytronyx, Inc. in San Diego for two years. Mullis has consulted on nucleic acid chemistry for multiple corporations.[4]

In 1992, Mullis founded a business with the intent to sell pieces of jewelry containing the amplified DNA of deceased famous people like Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe.[6][7]

Mullis participated in the inaugural San Diego Science Festival's "Lunch with a Laureate" program.[8]

PCR and other inventions
Main articles: Taq Polymerase and History of polymerase chain reaction

In 1983, Mullis was working for Cetus Corp. as a chemist.[3] That spring, according to Mullis, he was driving his vehicle late one night with his girlfriend, who was also a chemist at Cetus, when he had the idea to use a pair of primers to bracket the desired DNA sequence and to copy it using DNA polymerase, a technique which would allow a small strand of DNA to be copied almost an infinite number of times.[3] Cetus took Mullis off his usual projects to concentrate on PCR full-time,[3] and Mullis spent more than a year trying to show his idea would work, but could not produce "definitive proof" of the concept. Mullis eventually succeeded on December 16, 1983.[3] In his Nobel Prize lecture, he remarked that the success didn't make up for his girlfriend breaking up with him shortly before: "I was sagging as I walked out to my little silver Honda Civic. Neither [assistant] Fred, empty Beck's bottles, nor the sweet smell of the dawn of the age of PCR could replace Jenny. I was lonesome."[3] He received a $10,000 bonus from Cetus for the invention.[3]

Other Cetus scientists, including Randall Saiki and Henry Erlich, were placed on PCR projects to work on developing AIDS and other tests utilizing PCR. Saiki generated the needed data within months and authored the first paper on the improved technique,[4] while Mullis was still working on his paper that would describe PCR itself.[3]

A further complication was that the DNA polymerase was destroyed by the high heat used at the start of each replication cycle and had to be replaced. In 1986, Mullis started to use Thermophilus aquaticus (Taq) DNA polymerase to amplify segments of DNA. The Taq polymerase was heat resistant and would only need to be added once, thus making the technique dramatically more affordable and subject to automation. This has created revolutions in biochemistry, molecular biology, genetics, medicine and forensics.

Mullis has also invented a UV-sensitive plastic that changes color in response to light, and most recently has been working on an approach for mobilizing the immune system to neutralize invading pathogens and toxins, leading to the formation of his current venture, Altermune LLC. Mullis described this idea this way:

It is a method using specific synthetic chemical linkers to divert an immune response from its nominal target to something completely different which you would right now like to be temporarily immune to. Let's say you just got exposed to a new strain of the flu. You're already immune to alpha-1,3-galactosyl-galactose bonds. All humans are. Why not divert a fraction of those antibodies to the influenza strain you just picked up? A chemical linker synthesized with an alpha-1,3-gal-gal bond on one end and a DNA aptamer devised to bind specifically to the strain of influenza you have on the other end will link anti-alpha-Gal antibodies to the influenza virus and presto!--you have fooled your immune system into attacking the new virus.[2]

Accreditation of the PCR technique

A concept similar to that of PCR had been described before Mullis' work. Nobel Prize laureate H. Gobind Khorana and Kjell Kleppe, a Norwegian scientist, authored a paper seventeen years earlier describing a process they termed "repair replication" in the Journal of Molecular Biology. Using repair replication, Kleppe duplicated and then quadrupled a small synthetic molecule with the help of two primers and DNA-polymerase. The method developed by Mullis, however, incorporated the use of thermal cycling, which allowed the rapid and exponential amplification of large quantities of any desired DNA sequence from an extremely complex template.

The suggestion that Mullis was solely responsible for the idea of using Taq polymerase in the PCR process has been refuted by his co-workers at the time,[citation needed] who were embittered by his abrupt departure from Cetus.[3] However, other scientists have said that "the full potential [of PCR] was not realized" until Mullis' work in 1983,[9] and at least one book has reported that Mullis' colleagues failed to see the potential of the technique when he presented it to them.[6] As a result, some controversy surrounds the balance of credit that should be given to Mullis versus the team at Cetus.[4] In practice, credit has accrued to both the inventor and the company (although not its individual workers) in the form of a Nobel Prize and a $10,000 Cetus bonus for Mullis and $300 million for Cetus when the company sold the patent to Roche Molecular Systems. After DuPont lost out to La Roche on that sale, the company unsuccessfully disputed Mullis's patent on the alleged grounds that PCR had been previously described in 1971.[3] Mullis took Cetus' side in the case, and Khorana refused to testify for DuPont; the jury upheld Mullis's patent in 1991.[3]

The anthropologist Paul Rabinow wrote a book on the history of the PCR method in 1996 (entitled Making PCR) in which he discussed whether or not Mullis "invented" PCR or "merely" came up with the concept of it. Rabinow, a Foucault scholar interested in issues of the production of knowledge, used the topic to argue against the idea that scientific discovery is the product of individual work, writing, "Committees and science journalists like the idea of associating a unique idea with a unique person, the lone genius. PCR is, in fact, one of the classic examples of teamwork."[10]

Views on science

Mullis has said that the never-ending quest for more grants and staying with established dogmas has hurt science.[3] He believes that "Science is being practiced by people who are dependent on being paid for what they are going to find out," not for what they actually produce.[3]

AIDS denialism

Mullis has also drawn controversy for his association with prominent AIDS denialist Peter Duesberg and his rejection of the evidence that HIV causes AIDS.[11] At a 1994 conference in Toledo, Spain, Mullis changed the topic of his speech from PCR to his idea that HIV does not cause AIDS, at the last minute. According to The New York Times, his supporting slides were "photographs he had taken of naked women with colored lights projected on their bodies."[4]

Mullis wrote in an introduction to Duesberg's Inventing the Aids Virus (1997), "No one has ever proven that HIV causes AIDS. We have not been able to discover any good reasons why most of the people on earth believe that AIDS is a disease caused by a virus called HIV."[12] Mullis has stated that AIDS is an arbitrary diagnosis in which common medical conditions are mislabeled as AIDS when antibodies to HIV are found in a patient.[13] Medical and scientific consensus rejects such statements as disproven.

Global warming

Mullis is skeptical about anthropogenic global warming, disagreeing with the scientific consensus that human activity contributes to climate change.[14] Mullis also denies the scientific evidence that CFCs can cause ozone depletion.[15]


Mullis has stated that he is a strong proponent of astrology, and compares those who dismiss it out of hand to persons who originally thought the Earth was flat. [16]

Personal life

Mullis enjoys beach surfing,[17] and has been divorced three times.[3] He has three children by two ex-wives, including a son, Christopher.[3]

Use of LSD

Mullis details his experiences synthesizing and testing various psychedelic amphetamines and a difficult trip on DET in his autobiography. In a Q&A interview published in the September, 1994, issue of California Monthly, Mullis said, "Back in the 1960s and early '70s I took plenty of LSD. A lot of people were doing that in Berkeley back then. And I found it to be a mind-opening experience. It was certainly much more important than any courses I ever took."[18] During a symposium held for centenarian Albert Hofmann, "Hofmann revealed that he was told by Nobel-prize-winning chemist Kary Mullis that LSD had helped him develop the polymerase chain reaction that helps amplify specific DNA sequences."[19] Replying to his own postulate during an interview for BBC's Psychedelic Science documentary, "What if I had not taken LSD ever; would I have still invented PCR?" He replied, "I don't know. I doubt it. I seriously doubt it."[20]

Books authored

* The Polymerase Chain Reaction, 1994, with Richard A. Gibbs
* Dancing Naked in the Mind Field. 1998, Vintage Books.

Mullis's 1998 autobiography Dancing Naked in the Mind Field, gives his account of the commercial development of PCR, as well as providing insights into the opinions and experiences of the author. In the book, Mullis chronicles his romantic relationships, use of LSD, synthesis and self-testing of novel psychoactive substances, belief in astrology and an encounter with an extraterrestrial in the form of a fluorescent raccoon.

Awards and honors

* 1990 - William Allan Memorial Award of the American Society of Human Genetics | Preis Biochemische Analytik of the German Society of Clinical Chemistry and Boehringer Mannheim
* 1991 - National Biotechnology Award | Gairdner Award | R&D Scientist of the Year
* 1992 - California Scientist of the Year Award
* 1993 - Nobel Prize in Chemistry | Japan Prize | Thomas A. Edison Award
* 1994 - Honorary degree of Doctor of Science from the University of South Carolina
* 1998 - Inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame [21] | Ronald H. Brown American Innovator Award[22]
* 2004 - Honorary degree in Pharmaceutical Biotechnology from the University of Bologna, Italy

Mullis also received the John Scott Award in 1991, given by the City Trusts of Philadelphia to others including Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers.[23]

See also

* AIDS denialism
* Global warming controversy
* Nobel Prize controversies

Kary Mullis: Celebrating the scientific experiment


1. ^ a b c d e 'Biotechnology 101 by Brian Robert Shmaefsky
2. ^ a b c Official Nobel Autobiography
3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Estrine, Darryl (1994-07). "Is Kary Mullis God?". Esquire.
4. ^ a b c d e f "Scientist at Work/Kary Mullis; After the 'Eureka', a Nobelist Drops Out" Nicholas Wade, The New York Times, September 15, 1998.
5. ^ The Economist, 2004
6. ^ a b Life on the Edge: Amazing Creatures Thriving in Extreme Environments by Michael Gross
7. ^ The Hastings Center Report, 1998
8. ^
9. ^ Artificial DNA: Methods and Applications by Yury E. Khudyakov, Howard A. Fields
10. ^ Ethnography of a Nobel Prize
11. ^ Reason, June 1994
12. ^ Insight on the News, March 11, 1996
13. ^ Washington Informer, May 31, 2000
14. ^ Dancing Naked in the Mind Field". 1998, Vintage Books pp.115, 116, 118, 199 and 203
15. ^ Dancing Naked in the Mind Field". 1998, Vintage Books p.115
16. ^ Video Lecture Kary Mullis at Saddleback College's Science Lecture Series, 1/22/2010 (Vimeo)
17. ^ Time Magazine, December 13, 2000
18. ^ Schoch, Russell (September 1994). "Q&A - A Conversation with Kerry Mullis". California Monthly (Berkeley, CA: California Alumni Association) 105 (1): 20. Retrieved 2008-03-11.
19. ^ Ann Harrison (2006-01-16). "LSD: The Geek's Wonder Drug?". Wired. Wired. Retrieved 2008-03-11. "Like Herbert, many scientists and engineers also report heightened states of creativity while using LSD. During a press conference on Friday, Hofmann revealed that he was told by Nobel-prize-winning chemist Kary Mullis that LSD had helped him develop the polymerase chain reaction that helps amplify specific DNA sequences."
20. ^ "BBC Horizon - Psychedelic Science - DMT, LSD, Ibogaine - Part 5". BBC. 1997. Retrieved 2009-10-16.
21. ^ Hall of Fame/Inventor Profile
22. ^ Nobel Prize Winner Among Rondal H. Brown Award Recipients
23. ^ John Scott Award Winners

Additional sources

* Celia Farber, "Interview Kary Mullis", Spin (July 1994). (Focuses on his position regarding HIV and AIDS.)
* Anthony Liversidge, "Kary Mullis, the great gene machine", Omni magazine (April 1992).
* Kary Mullis, Dancing Naked in the Mind Field (Pantheon Books, 1998). ISBN 0-679-77400-9
* Paul Rabinow, Making PCR: a story of biotechnology (University of Chicago Press, 1996). ISBN 0-226-70147-6
* Charles A. Thomas Jr., Kary B. Mullis, and Phillip E. Johnson, "WHAT CAUSES AIDS? It's An Open Question" Reason (June 1994).

External links

* Sarah Klipfel's interview with Kary Mullis, July 14, 1998. Focuses on his position regarding HIV and AIDS.
* Kary Mullis's personal website
* Georgia Tech alumni site Article on Mullis as "Georgia Tech's only Nobel Laureate."
* "Nobel Dude" A writer tries to make sense of Mullis' place in the world.
* "Nobel Savage" London Review of Books review of Dancing Naked in the Mind Field.
* The Norwegian State Research Counsel online version of an interview in the Norwegian scientific journal "Research" with Ruth Kleppe Aakvaag (Wife of Kjell Kleppe)
* Interview by Marika Griehsel 2005-06-01

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