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Kary Mullis

David Jay Brown

Interviews

Kary Mullis

 Kary Mullis won the 1993 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his invention of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), which revolutionized the study of genetics. The journal Science listed Dr. Mullis’ invention of PCR as one of the most important scientific breakthroughs in human history.

PCR is a technique that allows chemists to easily, and inexpensively, replicate as much precise DNA as they need. This solved a core problem in genetics. Before PCR, the existing methods for making copies of those particular strands of DNA that one was interested in were slow, expensive and imprecise. The brilliance behind this invention, as well as it utter simplicity, lies in PCR’s ability to turn the job over to the very biomolecules that nature uses for copying DNA. PCR multiplies a single, microscopic strand of genetic material billions of times within hours. The process has many applications in medicine, genetics, biotechnology and forensics.

When the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded Dr. Mullis the Nobel Prize, they said it had “hastened the rapid development of genetic engineering” and “greatly stimulated biochemical research and opened the way for new applications in medicine and biology.” Just flipping through any current issue of the journals Science or Nature one will encounter advertisements for PCR systems every few pages. In addition to revolutionizing the study of genetics, it’s also influenced popular culture and science fiction. Because PCR has the ability to extract DNA from fossils, it was the theoretical basis for the motion picture Jurassic Park. In reality, PCR is the basis of an entirely new scientific discipline, paleobiology.

Dr. Mullis earned his Ph.D. degree in biochemistry from the University of California at Berkeley in 1972, and lectured there until 1973. That year he became a postdoctoral fellow in pediatric cardiology at the University of Kansas Medical School. In 1977 he began two years of postdoctoral work in pharmaceutical chemistry at the University of California, San Francisco. He joined the Cetus Corporation in Emeryville, California, as a DNA chemist in 1979, and it was during his seven years there that he invented PCR. Dr. Mullis has authored several major patents, and he has received numerous, highly prestigious awards–including the Japan Prize in 1993, the Thomas A. Edison Award (1993), and the California Scientist of the Year Award (1992). He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1998.

His many publications include “The Cosmological Significance of Time Reversal” (Nature), “The Unusual Origin of the Polymerase Chain Reaction” (Scientific American), “Primer-directed Enzymatic Amplification of DNA with a Thermostable DNA Polymerase” (Science), and “Specific Synthesis of DNA In Vitro via a Polymerase Catalyzed Chain Reaction” (Methods in Enzymology). Dr. Mullis is also the author of the book Dancing Naked In the Mind Field (Pantheon Books, 1998). This autobiographical account of his fascinating, and sometimes mind-bending adventures, simply overflows with a bounty of novel and thought-provoking ideas. Dr. Mullis makes a compelling case for the existence of greater mystery in the world around us, and he seems more interested in seeking truth than he is avoiding controversy.

Dr. Mullis is currently a Distinguished Researcher at Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute. He also serves on the board of scientific advisors of several companies, provides expert advice in legal matters involving DNA, and is a frequent lecturer at college campuses, corporations and academic meetings around the world. He is the inventor and founder of Altermune LLC. To find out more about Dr. Mullis’ work, visit his Web site: www.karymullis.com

Dr. Mullis lives with his wife, Nancy Cosgrove Mullis, in Newport Beach, California and in Anderson Valley, California. I met Kary and Nancy in 1999, when we did a radio show together with the late Elizabeth Gips on KKUP in Cupertino, California. I spoke with Kary again on September 22, 2003 for this book. During the interview, I noticed playful, childlike 

qualities in Kary when he was discussing sophisticated scientific ideas. There was a simplicity, and a clarity, in the way that he approached complex ideas, and his mind seemed to exist in many dimensions at once. Kary put a lot of thought into each of his answers, and although his mind seemed to be moving very quickly, he also appeared to be a very relaxed. Kary has an uncanny ability to combine extremely far-out perspectives with very practical, nuts-and-bolts thinking.

We spoke about the direction of science, the relevance of nonrandom mutations in evolution, psychic phenomena and other unexplainable experiences, the nature of time, the “thickness” of the moment, and the possibility of an asteroid colliding with the Earth–which he thinks is the most urgent threat to life on this planet. We also discussed his current research, which offers tremendous hope as a medical treatment for dealing with virtually any type of pathogen by engaging the immune system in a novel way. 

David: Where do you think humanity should be focusing its scientific efforts right now?

Kary: I think that if we, as a society, want to survive for a long time, then we’ve got to put up an umbrella over our heads to protect us from the things that are obviously going to fall on our planet. 

I often wonder, given that the universe is so vast, with so many stars that must have planets like ours, why there aren’t aliens down here trying to trade us beads and trinkets for Manhattan? (laughter) We must have something that they’d think was cool, and yet, it just doesn’t seem to be the case. If it is, they’re not making themselves known.

Maybe it’s because cultures tend to get wiped out by asteroids. We have gotten to the point where we can look into the near vicinity of space and see the things that are a serious danger to us.  The asteroid belt is full of things that don’t have stable orbits.  Maybe by the time a culture can recognize that, it’s too late, because they have gone off on some ridiculous tangents.  I think we’ve done that, in terms of our science.

 

We’re not pragmatists anymore. For at least a couple of hundred years Americans have always been thought of as pragmatic philosophers–if it doesn’t matter, we’re not going to worry about it too much. We’ve spent billions and billions trying to understand something called ‘The Grand Unified Theory of Everything’–and all you have to do is take LSD one time to realize that that is not going to happen. (laughter) You’re just not going to find ‘The Grand Unified Field of Everything’.

You can pretend to find it by spending vast sums of money and building huge machines. We’re building this great big thing called BABAR, which looks like an elephant. It’s an attachment that detects B-mesons, and will sit on top of the Stanford Linear Accelerator. They’re making something that’s going to produce a lot of what’s called B-mesons, and, from its particular properties, physicists hope to understand enough to provide the final structure of the universe–’The Grand Unified Theory of Everything’.

But human beings, who are paying for this whole endeavor, will never understand this. I’ve been studying it since I was a little boy, and it’s not really clear to me that this particular theory of everything is anything more than just a myth. You can find evidence for anything if you look hard enough. 

David: What do you think is the biggest threat to the human species?

Kary: We need to know where the asteroids are, and which ones could be on a course for Earth sometime in the next five hundred years, or even right now. If something two miles wide crashed on this planet going 17,000 miles per hour– which it probably would be by the time it got here– it would destroy everything. It’s done it before. We know for sure it happened 65 million years ago. That seems like a long time, but it’s not an infinitely long time. It’s just a long time.

You have to have a sense of a long distant future for man to be concerned about something like that. There are many asteroids, and every now and then, because of

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