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Mullis, Dr Kary

Category: Scientist


Kary Banks Mullis (born December 28, 1944) is a Nobel Prize-winning American biochemist, author, and lecturer.

In recognition of his improvement of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technique, he shared the 1993 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Michael Smith and earned the Japan Prize in the same year.

The process was first described by Kjell Kleppe and 1968 Nobel laureate H. Gobind Khorana, and allows the amplification of specific DNA sequences. The improvements made by Mullis allowed PCR to become a central technique in biochemistry and molecular biology, described by The New York Times as "highly original and significant, virtually dividing biology into the two epochs of before P.C.R. and after P.C.R."


Mullis was born in Lenoir, North Carolina, near the Blue Ridge Mountains. His family had a background in farming in this rural area.

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1993   Kary B. Mullis, Michael Smith  Nobel Lecture Nobel Lecture, December 8, 1993

In 1953, when Jim Watson and Francis Crick published the structure of DNA, Schroedinger's little book What is Life? and I were eight years old. I was too young to notice that mankind had finally understood how it might be that "like begat like." The book had been reprinted three times. I was living in Columbia S.C., where no one noticed that we didn't have a copy. But my home was a few blocks away from an undeveloped wooded area with a creek, possums, racoons, poisonous snakes, dragons, and a railroad track. We didn't need a copy. It was a wilderness for me and my brothers, an unknown and unregimented place to grow up. And if we got bored of the earth, we could descend into the network of storm drains under the city. We learned our way around that dark, subterranean labyrinth. It always frightened us. And we always loved it.


Mullis earned a Bachelor of Science (BSc) degree in chemistry from the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta in 1966, during which time he got married. He then received a PhD in biochemistry from the University of California, Berkeley in 1972.

After six years I headed east with a Ph. D. and confidence in my education. My wife of a few months went to Kansas to go to medical school and I followed her there. That was 1972. I had made no professional plans that would work in Kansas, so I decided to become a writer. I discovered pretty quickly that I was far too young. I didn't know anything yet about tragedy, and my characters were flat. I didn't know how to describe a mean spirit in terms someone else could believe.

So I had to get a job as a scientist. I found one at the medical school working with two pediatric cardiologists and a pathologist. It was a very fortunate accident. For one thing pediatricians are always the nicest doctors, and for another thing these doctors were very special: Leone Mattioli, whose wife could cook, Agostino Molteni and Richard Zakheim. For two years I did medical research, learned how to appreciate Old World values from two Italians and a New York Jew, and learned human biology for the first time.


Marriage over, Mullis returned to Berkeley, working for a time in a restaurant and then at the University of California at San Francisco.  He attended a seminar describing the synthesis and cloning of a gene for somatostatin. It impressed him enough that he started study DNA synthesis in the library. And he started looking for a job making DNA molecules. Cetus hired him in the autumn of 1979.

Mullis worked as a DNA chemist at Cetus for seven years; it was there, in 1983, that Mullis discovered his prize-winning improvements to the polymerase chain reaction. As of 2014, he is a researcher at the Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute in Oakland, California.

Some background to the discovery

Few, who have never worked with Americans or worked in the USA, are able to appreciate how aggressive the working environment is in the USA.  If you are quiet and somewhat introspective, you sink like a stone, never to be listened to.  In America, in every meeting you have to shout louder than the other person, interrupting them to get your point of view across, and even then the likelihood of any idea being thoughtfully mulled over, considered or even accepted is nil.  Silent thinking is not an option in the USA, silence has to be filled with noise.  It is not a good place for the thoughtful or the spiritually inclined, the inspired or the artistic, the sensitive or the gentle.  And it is thus not a good place to find either true inspiration or wisdom

But it is a good place for any good idea to be exploited and publicised.  As long as you don’t mind that your idea has apparently suddenly changed ownership and become someone else’s, then it is an ideal place to get ideas spread.  The money making and publicity machine is honed to a sharp point in the USA.

Now let us suppose that the Great Work requires that a particular idea gets revealed at a certain point.  Most scientific ‘discoveries’ are of things already ‘there’ spiritually.  Thus scientific discoveries are better thought of as revelations and certainly not as inventions.  There are two options. 

Give the idea to a quiet introspective person who happens to be working with a bombastic, self opinionated egotistical know-all who will undoubtedly claim the idea to be theirs and publicise and exploit it.  This has its downside as one can imagine.  An egotistical know-it all never receives any form of revelation - inspiration or wisdom, as such there is a real danger, if the idea is important that it will get distorted in the telling.  And PCR is important.


The alternative is to give the idea to someone who by their sheer doggedness and slightly off the wall and subversive behaviour, is able to publicise and spread the word, but who by their actions is occasionally making themselves open to revelations.  And Kary is the latter of the two, by his own admission.

It is widely believed that Kary Muller discovered the DNA replication process whilst on LSD.  It is a good deal more mundane as you will see from this talk by him on TED....

Play! Experiment! Discover!  - Transcript TED2002 · 29:32 · Filmed Feb 2002

that... process is what I think of as science, see, where you start with some idea, and then instead of, like, looking up, every authority that you've ever heard of I -- sometimes you do that, if you're going to write a paper later, you want to figure out who else has worked on it. But in the actual process, you get an idea -- like, when I got the idea one night that I could amplify DNA with two oligonucleotides,and I could make lots of copies of some little piece of DNA, you know, the thinking for that was about 20 minutes while I was driving my car, and then instead of going -- I went back and I did talk to people about it, but if I'd listened to what I heard from all my friends who were molecular biologists -- I would have abandoned it. You know, if I had gone back looking for an authority figure who could tell me if it would work or not, he would have said, no, it probably won't. Because the results of it were so spectacular that if it worked it was going to change everybody's goddamn way of doing molecular biology. Nobody wants a chemist to come in and poke around in their stuff like that and change things. But if you go to authority, and you always don't -- you don't always get the right answer, see. But I knew, you'd go into the lab and you'd try to make it work yourself. And then you're the authority, and you can say, I know it works, because right there in that tube is where it happened, and here, on this gel, there's a little band there that I know that's DNA, and that's the DNA I wanted to amplify, so there! So it does work. You know, that's how you do science. And then you say, well, what can make it work better? And then you figure out better and better ways to do it. But you always work from, from like, facts that you have made available to you by doing experiments: things that you could do on a stage



He surfed, he took LSD, and as a child, he did experiments in his back-yard sending frogs up in rockets, he was ripe for revelation!

Play! Experiment! Discover!  - Transcript TED2002 · 29:32 · Filmed Feb 2002

At any rate, when I was a boy, I, like, for instance, I had this -- I got this little book from Fort Sill, Oklahoma -- ….. I was thinking about making my own little rockets. And I knew that frogs -- little frogs -- had aspirations of space travel, just like people. And I -- (Laughter) I was looking for a -- a propulsion system that would like, make a rocket, like, maybe about four feet high go up a couple of miles. And, I mean, that was my sort of goal. I wanted it to go out of sight and then I wanted this little parachute to come back with the frog in it. And -- I -- I -- I got this book from Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where there's a missile base. They send it out for amateur rocketeers, and it said in there do not ever heat a mixture of potassium perchlorate and sugar. (Laughter) You know, that's what you call a lead. (Laughter) You sort of -- now you say, well, let's see if I can get hold of some potassium chlorate and sugar, perchlorate and sugar, and heat it; it would be interesting to see what it is they don't want me to do, and what it is going to -- and how is it going to work. And we didn't have -- like, my mother presided over the back yard from an upstairs window, where she would be ironing or something like that. And she was usually just sort of keeping an eye on, and if there was any puffs of smoke out there, she'd lean out and admonish us all not to blow our eyes out. That was her -- You know, that was kind of the worst thing that could happen to us. That's why I thought, as long as I don't blow my eyes out... I may not care about the fact that it's prohibited from heating this solution. I'm going to do it carefully, but I'll do it.
It's like anything else that's prohibited: you do it behind the garage.



... or the bike sheds.  There were other aspects that made him perfect for such a revelation.  He liked experimenting and experimenting using observations and the ‘scientific method’ as it should be done.  He also, it seemed was quite fearless in doing so:

Play! Experiment! Discover!  - Transcript TED2002 · 29:32 · Filmed Feb 2002

There's a lot of little things involved in making a rocket that it will actually work, even after you have the fuel. But you do it, by -- what I just-- you know, you do experiments, and you write down things sometimes, you make observations, you know. And then you slowly build up a theory of how this stuff works. And it was -- I was following all the rules. I didn't know what the rules were, I'm a natural born scientist, I guess, or some kind of a throwback to the 17th century, whatever. But at any rate, we finally did have a device that would reproduceably [sic] put a frog out of sight and get him back alive. And we had not -- I mean, we weren't frightened by it. We should have been, because it made a lot of smoke and it made a lot of noise, and it was powerful, you know. And once in a while, they would blow up. But I wasn't worried, by the way, about, you know, the explosion causing the destruction of the planet. …. -- By the way, I could have thought, I'd better not do this because they say not to, you know. And I'd better get permission from the government. If I'd have waited around for that, I would have never -- the frog would have died, you know.


The LSD did help, but what is not appreciated is so did the surfing, which is a form of communing with nature....

And I moved down to La Jolla and learned how to surf. And I started living down there on the beach for a long time. And when surfers are out waiting for waves, you probably wonder, if you've never been out there, what are they doing? You know, sometimes there's a 10-, 15-minute break out there when you're waiting for a wave to come in………….

And Kary Muller also likes women. He has been married four times and has three children by two ex-wives…………….


At any rate, I bring it up because it's a good story, and he said, tell personal things, you know, and that's a personal -- I was going to tell you about the first night that I met my wife, but that would be too personal, wouldn't it.


In one of our last experiments before we became so interested in the maturing young women around us that we would not think deeply about rocket fuels for another ten years, we blasted a frog a mile into the air and got him back alive. In another, we inadvertently frightened an airline pilot, who was preparing to land a DC-3 at Columbia airport. Our mistake.

Another very key attribute of Kary was that he was honest....

…… And no tricky shit behind the thing. I mean, it's all -- you've got to be very honest with what you're doing if it really is going to work. I mean, you can't make up results, and then do another experiment based on that one. So you have to be honest. And I'm basically honest. I have a fairly bad memory, and dishonesty would always get me in trouble, if I, like -- so I've just sort of been naturally honest and naturally inquisitive, and that sort of leads to that kind of science.

So, Kary Muller was an honest, curious, rebel, with plenty of confidence, who liked sex and making love, who had been convinced to take LSD and was thus a little bit open to revelations, but was probably made more open by the fact he made love frequently and surfed.  And he received his revelation and even in the atmosphere that was America at its most aggressive and negative, he stuck with it.

After the discovery


Kary Muller has been as controversial and as off the wall after his discovery as he was before. He is full of ideas, but I think PCR was his only revelation.  But being a bright cookie there is one thing that through his observer's eyes is worth repeating.  Here he is talking about what happened to science not long after his discoveries:

Play! Experiment! Discover!  - Transcript TED2002 · 29:32 · Filmed Feb 2002

 And everybody stepped back a little and said, you know, we ought to invest in this shit, because whoever has got the most of these people working in the places is going to have a dominant position, at least in the military, and probably in all kind of economic ways. And they got involved in it, and the scientific and industrial establishment was born, and out of that came a lot of scientists who were in there for the money, you know, because it was suddenly available.
And they weren't the curious little boys that liked to put frogs up in the air. They were the same people that later went in to medical school, you know, because there was money in it, you know. ... there are waves of -- going into your high school, person saying, you want to be rich, you know, be a scientist. .... But a lot of people got in it for the money and the power and the travel. That's back when travel was easy. And those people don't think -- they don't -- they don't always tell you the truth, you know. There is nothing in their contract, in fact, that makes it to their advantage always, to tell you the truth.

No indeed.  As we have said, fearless.


Dancing Naked in the Mind Field - Dr Kary Mullis 1998

The Dr Kary Banks Mullis website can be found by following this LINK - the website provides detailed informatuion on his lectures and current activities


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