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Story of Kary Mullis, PCR inventor

'Sometimes a great idea comes to you when you are not looking for it''Science is subject to arbitrary fashion' 'Science grows like a weed every year'

  

Kary Mullis at TED talk.
Kary Mullis, inventor of PCR was born on 28 December 1944 in North Carolina, USA. His parents grew up in the foothills of Blue ridge Mountains. And they live near their grandfather’s farm.

Kary Mullis was an eight-year-old boy when Watson and Crick published the structure of DNA in 1953. By the time Watson and Crick were awarded Nobel prize, Kary was still busy designing rockets in Georgia Institute of Technology. He was not interested in studying DNA at all. By the time he left Georgia Tech, biologists had already solved the genetic code. It was during his six years at UC, Berkley as a Ph.D. student that changes his mind.

After six years at Berkley with a Ph.D., he headed to Kansas to become a writer. He quickly found out he was too young to be a writer and was poor in plotting. So, becoming a scientist seems to be the only option. He started working as a scientist and worked for two years and later to return to Berkley. On his return, Cetus corp, a biotechnology firm hired him. He worked on DNA in the firm.

One Friday night, he was driving from Berkley to Mendocino with his girlfriend. His girlfriend was sleeping while he was driving. It was during this drive that the idea came to him. He stopped his car at mile marker 46.7 on highway 128 out of excitement. He realized that with two oligonucleotides, DNA polymerase, and four nucleoside triphosphates, he could make as much DNA as he wants. However, he could not believe himself at first. He said to himself, ‘it had to be an illusion. Otherwise, it would change the DNA chemistry forever. Otherwise, it would make me famous, it was too easy. Somebody must have done it.’

After his return from the drive, he went to the library. To his utter disbelieve, there was no single literature about amplifying DNA using primers. He was astonished. He shared his idea with his friend and colleagues in the firm, but nobody seems to get excited about it. Ron Cook, one of his friend is the only person enthusiastic about his idea. Ron Cook is the person who produced the first commercial DNA synthesis machine. Ron suggests Kary resigns from his work and patent the process for himself and get rich. By rich, he meant millions of dollars.

But Kary never took Ron’s advice. Kary shared his greatest masterpiece to Cetus and Cetus patented the process. Kary was happy working for the company and hoped that the company will award him handsomely if it turns out to be successful commercially. He worked for months on the idea and the first successful experiment happened on December 16th, on his daughter Cynthia’s birthday. Later on, they awarded him a $10,000 bonus for his invention, while the company sold the patent to another company for $300 million. Kary felt he was unfairly treated.

He sent his first PCR paper to both Nature and science. Both journals rejected the paper. Science says it is inappropriate for their readers. However, James Watson becomes aware of his work and its potentials. So, they invited Kary to the 1986 Coldspring Harbor Symposium. This becomes the first official announcement of PCR to the scientific community. He submitted his paper for an official journal publication to the journal Methods in Enzymology. It was accepted and published. 

Three years later, PCR was proclaimed as the ‘Molecule of the Year’. He was awarded Nobel Prize in 1993 in chemistry for his invention of PCR. The Nobel comments, ‘Kary Mullis invented the process as polymerase chain reaction (PCR), in which a small amount of DNA can be copied in large quantities over a short period. PCR has been a major importance in both medical research and forensic science’’.

Source: Kary B. Mullis – Facts. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Media AB 2019. Fri. 27 Dec 2019. 

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