PCR inventor, Nobel laureate Kary Mullis dies


NOBEL LAUREATE Kary Mullis died on Aug 7 of pneumonia at the age of 74 in Newport Beach, California. He won the 1993 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his invention of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) method for copying and amplifying DNA. Mullis invented the PCR method in 1983 as a chemist at Cetus Corporation.

In The Scientist in 2003, Mullis described his first attempt at PCR as “a long shot experiment,” but it really did pay off. It is now one of the most widely used methods in forensics and biomedical research. Amplifying DNA, a requirement for most tests, used to be done in bacteria, and took weeks to complete, now only takes a few hours.

According to The Scientist , both prestigious journals Science and Nature rejected the original manuscript that documented the PCR process, which was eventually published in Methods in Enzymology. By then, Mullis had left Cetus, went on to consult for a number of biotech firms, including big names in the life sciences, such as Abbott Labs and Eastman Kodak. PCR inventor, Nobel laureate Kary Mullis dies

According to The New York Times in 1998, Mullis was aggrieved that Cetus paid him a mere $10,000 for the discovery but later sold it to Hoffmann-La Roche, owned by Roche Holding Ltd for $300 million.

The original version of PCR that Mullis developed uses repeated cycles of elevated temperatures to separate DNA strands, which are then copied by a heat-stable DNA polymerase. Repeating the cycle many times leads to an exponential increase in the quantity of DNA. In this way, even traces of DNA can be amplified into amounts that can be easily sequenced or quantified.

In the mid-2000s, he formed a company called Altermune with the goal of developing a therapeutic to redeploy a person’s existing antibodies against new pathogens. Beyond his work on PCR, Mullis was also known for his controversial views disputing humans’ role in climate change and HIV’s role in AIDS. He also was open about taking hallucinogenic drugs like LSD and synthesising some when in graduate school.

Mullis was born in Lenoir, North Carolina, in 1944. He received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the Georgia Institute of Technology in 1966 and a PhD in biochemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1972. He joined Cetus in 1979. In 1986, he became the director of molecular biology at Xytronyx. And starting in 1987, he worked as a consultant on nucleic acid chemistry for multiple companies. He leaves behind his wife Nancy Cosgrove, three children, and two grandchildren.