Kary Banks Mullis
, Ph.D. (born December 28
) is an American biochemist
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 reaction first described by Kjell Kleppe and 1968 Nobel laureate H. Gobind Khorana
that allows the amplification of specific DNA
sequences. The improvements provided by Mullis have made PCR a central technique in biochemistry
and molecular biology
. Mullis also received the Japan Prize
Early life and education
Mullis was born in Lenoir, North Carolina
, near the Blue Ridge Mountains
, 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. He grew up in Columbia, South Carolina
, where he attended Dreher High School.
Mullis earned a Bachelor of Science
degree in chemistry
from the Georgia Institute of Technology
in 1966 and received a Ph.D.
in biochemistry from the University of California, Berkeley
in 1973; his research focused on synthesis and structure of proteins
. Following his graduation, Mullis became a postdoctoral fellow in paediatric 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, then managed a bakery for two years. 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
. 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
. After leaving Cetus in 1986, Mullis served as director of molecular biology for Xytronyx, Inc. for two years. Mullis has consulted on nucleic acid chemistry for multiple corporations.
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.
PCR and other inventions
In 1983, Mullis was working for Cetus. That spring, according to Mullis, he was driving his vehicle late one night when he had the idea to use a pair of primers to bracket the desired DNA sequence and to copy it using DNA polymerase. Mullis spent more than a year trying to show his idea would work, but could not produce "definitive proof" of the concept, so a second scientist, Randall Saiki, was placed on the project. Saiki generated the needed data within months and authored the first paper on the improved technique.
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. This work is now being funded by DARPA. 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.
Accreditation of the PCR technique
Mullis was not the first to propose the ideas behind PCR
. The main principles were described in 1971 by 1968 Nobel Prize laureate H. Gobind Khorana
and Kjell Kleppe, a Norwegian scientist. Kleppe and Khorana released a 20-page research paper on PCR in the 1971 Journal of Molecular Biology
. As early as June 18, 1969, Kleppe had presented his work at the Gordon Conference in New Hampshire
. Using repair replication (the principle of PCR), he duplicated and then quadrupled a small synthetic molecule with the help of two primers and DNA-polymerase. Among the attendees was Stuart Linn, who then used Kleppe's material in his own teachings to his students, including Mullis.
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. However, other scientists have said that "the full potential [of PCR] was not realized" until Mullis' work in 1983, and at least one book has reported that Mullis' colleagues failed to see the potential of the technique when he presented it to them. As a result, some controversy surrounds the balance of credit that should be given to Mullis versus the team at Cetus. 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.
The anthropologist Paul Rabinow wrote a book on the history of the PCR method in 1996 in which he questioned 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.
Mullis has also drawn controversy for his association with prominent AIDS denialist Peter Duesberg
and his rejection of the evidence that HIV
. At a 1994 conference in Toledo, Spain, Mullis changed the topic of his speech at the last minute, and instead lectured the crowd on his idea that HIV does not cause AIDS. According to The New York Times
, his supporting slides were "photographs he had taken of naked women with colored lights projected on their bodies."
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. 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. Medical and scientific consensus, based on decades of research, rejects such statements as unfounded speculation.
Mullis is skeptical about global warming
, disagreeing with the theory that human activity is a factor. Mullis also denies the scientific evidence that CFCs
can cause ozone depletion
Mullis enjoys beach surfing
Use of LSD
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. 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.
- The Polymerase Chain Reaction, 1994, with Richard A. Gibbs
- Dancing Naked in the Mind Field. 1998, Vintage Books.
Mullis wrote the 1998 autobiography Dancing Naked in the Mind Field, which gives an account of his initial invention of PCR, as well as providing insights into the opinions and experiences of the author. Several examples of supposedly atypical behavior for a scientist, including the use of LSD, belief in astrology, and the belief in an extraterrestrial encounter, are also chronicled within the book.
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 | Ronald H. Brown American Innovator Award
- 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 other Nobelists including Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers.
- 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)