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Polymerase Chain Reaction

Acheson Kary Banks Mullis, creator of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), was born Dec. 28, 1944 in Lenoir, North Carolina. When he was a child his mother let him and his brothers choose a gift each Christmas. One year he chose a Gilbert Chemistry Set. That set in motion his lifelong commitment to chemistry and scientific exploration.

Mullis earned a B.S. in chemistry from the Georgia Institute of Technology in 1966. He earned a Ph.D. degree in biochemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1972. He lectured at U.C. Berkeley until 1973, then took a postdoctoral position in pediatric cardiology at the University of Kansas Medical School. In 1977, he accepted another postdoctoral position, this time in pharmaceutical chemistry at the University of California, San Francisco.

In 1979, Mullis joined the Cetus Corp. in Emeryville, California as a DNA chemist. His research focused on oligonucleotide synthesis. One night, while driving on the freeway from San Francisco to Mendocino with his girlfriend/lab assistant, he conceived the idea for the polymerase chain reaction. PCR, a technique that amplifies DNA, enables scientists to make millions of copies of a DNA molecule in a matter of hours. The process has been called one of the most important scientific discoveries of the 20th century. Its uses include detecting DNA sequences, diagnosing genetic diseases, detecting viruses and bacteria, DNA fingerprinting, and researching human evolution.

In 1993, Mullis was awarded a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for PCR. He received a $10,000 bonus from Cetus, who later sold the technology to LaRoche for $300,000,000. Meanwhile, Mullis left Cetus after seven years with the company and in 1986, he became director of molecular biology at Xytronyx, Inc. in San Diego. In 1987, he began consulting on nucleic acid chemistry for corporations such as Angenics, Cytometrics, Eastman Kodak and Abbott Labs.

Over the course of his career, free-spirited surfer and scientist Mullis has gained a reputation for unconventional thinking and practice. In addition to PCR technology, he has also created a technique to filter DNA from blood in 15 minutes versus the typical full day; invented a UV-sensitive plastic that changes color in response to light; suggested that the traditional Avagadro number system for counting molecules be replaced by 'things per microliter' and developed a unique explanation for how AIDS defeats the immune system.

In addition to the Nobel, Mullis received the Japan Prize in 1993 for PCR. His other awards include the Thomas A. Edison Award (1993); California Scientist of the Year Award (1992); the National Biotechnology Award (1991); the Gairdner Award, Toronto, Canada (1991); the R&D Scientist of the Year (1991). He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1998. He has authored numerous publications and he also wrote an autobiography, "Dancing Naked in the Mind Field," which was published in 1998.

Most recently (2002), Mullis worked for Burstein Technologies in Irvine, California, as vice president and director of molecular biology. He serves on the board of scientific advisors of several companies and is a frequent lecturer at universities and academic gatherings around the world. He lives with his wife, Nancy Cosgrove Mullis, in Newport Beach, California, and in Anderson Valley, California.

[January 2003]

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