An obituary of the most influential biochemist of recent years

In addition to developing the polymerase chain reaction, Kary Mullis reinvented the expectations of the modern scientist

Writer: Dan Jacobson
Editor: Laura Riggall


Few recreational drugs have garnered the intrigue and idolisation of lysergic acid diethylamide. This substance, also known as LSD, is a synthetic drug thought to bind to serotonin receptors in the brain, making it ideal for treating psychiatric disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. However, the hallucinogenic effects of LSD have bestowed upon it, a certain legendary status. LSD was at the centre of the Woodstock-hosting, flower-power paradigm shift of 1960’s culture, fronted by bands such as, The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. It allegedly inspired masterpieces including Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and Henri Michaux’s Miserable Miracle.

Using LSD was also a hobby of the acclaimed biochemist Kary Mullis, who passed away earlier this year. The story goes that Mullis, who excitedly retold it, during his 1993 Nobel Prize speech, conceived the idea of the polymerase chain reaction, whilst on a drive in 1983 to a favoured surfing spot in Mendocino, California. He claimed to Albert Hoffman, the inventor of LSD, that his usage was instrumental in realising his ground-breaking discovery. Hoffman alleges that the heightened creativity experienced during these trips is ideal for investigating the secrets of nature, saying “if you don’t turn into a mystic, you are not a natural scientist.” 

The polymerase chain reaction, known as PCR, is a process that amplifies DNA segments, and the technique is deceptively, intriguingly simple. Beginning with a small amount of double-stranded DNA, the first step is to increase the temperature to around 95°C, causing the strands to denature and separate. The temperature then decreases, during which primers, short DNA segments designed to begin the DNA replication process, anneal to the strands. Finally, the temperature is increased, causing the DNA to be elongated. The temperature returns to 95°C, and the cycle begins again.

Each cycle takes around two minutes to complete. Within an hour, a single piece of DNA can yield more than one billion copies. All for the price of a few short DNA segments, an extensively produced enzyme, and a 3kg thermal cycler.

In Mullis’ own words, with PCR, he had “solved the most annoying problems in DNA chemistry in a single lightning bolt”. Since then, DNA amplification has allowed researchers to decode the human genome, decipher the genetic bases behind diseases such as sickle cell anaemia, and develop forensic scientific techniques. Despite these applications, though, Mullis maintained a cold relationship with the scientific community, citing its endless hunt for grants, as replacing the natural curiosity, that ought to be driving research.

Unfortunately, as with many great scientists, Mullis fell into some questionable stances following his great breakthrough. He labelled global warming and ozone depletion as conspiracies and was doubtful of the association between HIV and AIDS, claiming that the symptoms are the result of a “hypothetical disease” caused by the growth of cells, following latent viral infection. Even the lone hero, bolt-from-the-blue narrative he presents regarding PCR, has faced intense scrutiny.

Whilst these developments may dampen one’s perceptions of him, Kary Mullis has earned his place as one of the most unique thinkers of the past century, leaving a legacy concerning the roles, outlooks, and responsibilities of the modern scientist, just as meaningful and influential as the scientific developments he enabled.

Image: Kary B. Mullis – Facts. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Media AB 2020. Wed. 26 Feb 2020. <https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/chemistry/1993/mullis/facts/&gt;

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