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Kary Mullis

Kary Banks Mullis, Ph.D. (born December 28, 1944) is an American biochemist and Nobel laureate.

Dr Mullis was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1993 for his development of the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR), a central technique in biochemistry and molecular biology which allows the amplification of specified DNA sequences. Dr Mullis subsequently was awarded the Japan Prize that same year.


Early life and education

Mullis was born in Lenoir, North Carolina, near the Blue Ridge Mountains,[1] on December 28, 1944. His family had a background in farming in the rural area, and as a child Mullis studied the diverse organisms of nearby farms.[2] He grew up in Columbia, South Carolina,[2] where he attended Dreher High School.

Mullis earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry[1] from the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta in 1966 and received a PhD in biochemistry from the University of California, Berkeley in 1973; his research focused on synthesis and structure of proteins.[2] 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.


In 1979, Mullis joined the biotechnology company Cetus Corporation of Emeryville, California,[2] where he worked as a DNA chemist for seven years. In 1983, while synthesizing oligonucleotides, Mullis invented the technique known as the polymerase chain reaction.[3] He then proceeded to Xytronyx Inc. in 1986, where he was appointed the director of molecular biology, before moving on to serve as a nucleic acid chemistry consultant for multiple corporations.[4]

In 1992, Mullis founded a business with the intent to sell pieces of jewelry containing the amplified DNA of famous people, such as musicians, to young people.[5]

PCR and other inventions

See main articles Thermus aquaticus and History of PCR

In 1983, Mullis was working for Cetus. That spring, while driving his car and watching the lines on the highway,[6] Mullis conceived of the idea of using a pair of primers to bracket the desired sequence and copying it using DNA polymerase, but the polymerase was destroyed with each thermal cycle and had to be replaced. In 1986, he 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.[1]

Accreditation of the PCR technique

Some controversy surrounds the balance of credit that should be given to Mullis versus the team at Cetus.[citation needed] 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 main principles of PCR were described in 1971 by Kjell Kleppe, a Norwegian scientist, and some have asserted that Kleppe has a better claim to the invention.[citation needed] Together with 1968 Nobel Prize laureate H. Gobind Khorana, Kleppe released a 20-page research paper on PCR in the 1971 Journal of Molecular Biology. As early as June 18, 1969, Kleppe 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[7] 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.[citation needed] However, other scientists have said that "the full potential [of PCR] was not realized" until Mullis' work in 1983,[8] 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]

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."[9]



Mullis has also drawn controversy[citation needed] for his past association with Peter Duesberg and his skepticism about the evidence for the idea that HIV causes AIDS.[10] As the recipient of a Nobel Prize for the PCR technique that is used to measure viral load in people with AIDS, he has often been cited by people within the AIDS dissident movement as someone who supports their views.[citation needed] Mullis wrote in an introduction to one of Duesberg's books, "No one has ever proved 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."[11]

Mullis has said of HIV:

"If HIV has been here all along and it can be passed from mother to child, wouldn't it make sense to test for the antibodies in the mothers of anyone who is positive to HIV, especially if that individual is not showing any signs of disease?... If an HIV-positive woman develops uterine cancer, for example, she is considered to have AIDS. If she is not HIV-positive, she simply has uterine cancer. An HIV-positive man with tuberculosis has AIDS; if he tests negative he simply has tuberculosis. If he lives in Kenya or Colombia, where the test for HIV antibodies is too expensive, he is simply presumed to have the antibodies and therefore AIDS, and therefore he can be treated in the World Health Organization's clinic. It's the only medical help available in some places."[12]

Global warming

Mullis is skeptical about the concern over global warming, disagreeing with the scientific consensus that it is caused by humans; he also disagrees with the idea that CFCs cause ozone depletion.

OJ Simpson Trial

Dr. Mullis was supposed to be an expert witness, on the defendant's side, in the 1995 O. J. Simpson murder case. He witnessed most of the trial but was not called on during the trial. (from his book (dancing naked..))

Personal life

After his Nobel win, Mullis spent time at the beach surfing.[13]

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."[citation needed] 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.[citation needed]

Books authored

  • 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. These accounts have made Mullis a controversial figure within the scientific community.[citation needed]

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 [14] | Ronald H. Brown American Innovator Award[15]

Mullis has also received the John Scott Award, given by the City Trusts of Philadelphia to other Nobelists, as well as Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers.[16]

See also

  • AIDS reappraisal
  • Global warming controversy
  • Nobel Prize controversies


  1. ^ a b c Official Nobel Autobiography
  2. ^ a b c d 'Biotechnology 101 by Brian Robert Shmaefsky
  3. ^ The Economist, 2004
  4. ^ Kary Mullis' biography
  5. ^ The Hastings Center Report, 1998
  6. ^ a b Life on the Edge: Amazing Creatures Thriving in Extreme Environments by Michael Gross
  7. ^ (according to Arthur Kornberg in interview)
  8. ^ Artificial DNA: Methods and Applications by Yury E. Khudyakov, Howard A. Fields
  9. ^ Ethnography of a Nobel Prize
  10. ^ Reason, June 1994
  11. ^ Insight on the News, March 11, 1996
  12. ^ Washington Informer, May 31, 2000
  13. ^ Time Magazine, December 13, 2000
  14. ^ Hall of Fame/Inventor Profile
  15. ^ Nobel Prize Winner Among Rondal H. Brown Award Recipients
  16. ^ John Scott Award Goes to NIDDK's Bax

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).
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Kary_Mullis". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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