April 15, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College


Three years ago, after yet another Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) had failed and science seemed a never-ending series of repetitive frustrations, a friend lent me a book, Dancing Naked in the Mind Field, by Kary Mullis, inventor of PCR.

Mullis, as it turns out, is one of those controversial figures of science. A distinguished biochemist and Nobel Prize winner, he likes his women and his surf, living the OC life down in Newport Beach, California. Undoubtedly a bit of a genius, some would say he is also a bit of a madman. But it’s that duality that makes him such a compelling figure.

Kary Banks Mullis was born in Lenoir, North Carolina in December 1944. Every November he and his brothers would pick out a Christmas gift from a pile of their mother’s catalogues. One year young Kary’s eyes were drawn to a Gilbert Chemistry set. In his words: “Something about tubes filled with things with exotic names intrigued me. My objective with that set was to figure out what things I might put together to cause an explosion.”

So it is that great thinkers begin. Mullis went on to study chemistry at Georgia and Biochemistry at Berkeley, where he later lectured. In 1979 he stumbled upon the idea for PCR. As he tells it, he conceived the idea cruising along the Pacific Coast Highway 128 in his Honda Civic late one night. His wife fast asleep in the passenger seat, he was mulling over new ways to analyse DNA mutations when he realised he had invented a way to amplify any DNA sequence. Pulling over in the cold night, he scribbled the idea on scrap paper from the glove compartment.

Fourteen years later, Mullis received both the Nobel Prize for Chemistry and the Japan Prize for his work on PCR. The technique has revolutionised molecular biology. By allowing any DNA sequence to be copied and multiplied, easily and without needing a living organism, the many applications of the genomics era have become possible.

Yet Mullis is as much known for his achievements as his outspoken views on non-biochemical topics. He doesn’t believe that global warming is caused by humans and decries the link between CFCs and the decay of the ozone layer. He is also said to be sceptical about the evidence linking HIV to AIDS. He could have been a witness in defence of OJ Simpson, but his experience with forensic DNA analysis was not called upon in the end. And one night, at a cabin in the remote Californian woods, a ‘glowing racoon’ appeared before him, greeting him, “Good Evening, Doctor.” The next thing he knew, several hours had passed. “I wouldn’t try to publish a scientific paper about [the racoon], because I can’t do any experiments,” he says in his autobiography, Dancing Naked in the Mind Field. “I can’t make glowing raccoons appear. I can’t buy them from a scientific supply house to study. I can’t cause myself to be lost again for several hours. But I don’t deny what happened. It’s what science calls anecdotal, because it only happened in a way that you can’t reproduce. But it happened.”

Say what you will about Mullis’s views and eclectic experiences, but there is no doubting the impact of PCR or his commitment to science. His first thoughts after trying LSD were, “How could 1000 micrograms – one thousandth of a gram – of some chemical cause my entire fucking sensorium to undergo such incredible changes?” He says, “Science, like nothing else among the institutions of mankind, grows like a weed every year…We are the recipients of scientific method. We not only can luxuriate in its weed-like growth, but we can each of us be a creative and active part of it if we so desire. And we will. There is no stopping it, nor can there be any end to it.”

From such weird minds can everyday methods arise. Every so often you need a reminder that it’s not all boring lab work and textbooks. That’s what we’ve tried to do in I,Science. Thanks to everyone who has contributed and assisted in the trenches this year. We’ve thoroughly enjoyed putting it together and we hope you’ve enjoyed reading it. ‘Til next year.

Mun Keat Looi