Inventor of the Week Archive
for a different Invention or Inventor
Polymerase Chain Reaction
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.