Scientific advances are oftentimes fraught with years of inconspicuous toil in cramped laboratory spaces. At a time when much of science increasingly relies on large-scale processes in which discovery emerges as a result of a multitude of inputs rather than the obvious consequence of one individual's inspiration, it is unusual these days for a scientist to garner recognition at levels often accorded to virtuosos in other realms. However among the exceptions, Nobel laureate Dr. Kary Mullis (Chemistry, 1993) is credited with one of the most "far reaching" inventions of modern science.
Dr. Mullis' discovery did not take place amidst rows of beakers and test tubes lining the recesses of a laboratory workbench, but rather while he was driving late one night along Highway 128 one dry hot California night en route to his country cabin in California's bucolic Mendocino county. About halfway into the stretch between Cloverdale and Booneville at mileage marker 46.58, Mullis experienced what might be characterized as a classic "eureka" moment and pulled off the road to record one of the 20th century's inestimable discoveries, later to be known as the polymerase chain reaction or PCR. This discovery served to redefine and open the door to the world of DNA and genetics signaling a paradigm shift so profound that it would affect the interests and future of mankind.
Kary Mullis likes to hum when he's thinking deeply. Those who know him well are reticent to engage him in conversation when he is humming so as to not interrupt what might well be another pioneering thought process underway. It's probably a good guess that as he was navigating Highway 128 that night in the spring of 1983, he was humming quite a bit. As Mullis recollects, that particular night his mind was occupied by one of his favorite pastimes "cooking", which in his terms meant reflecting on the "ingredients" of his lab at the time. In particular Dr. Mullis was seeking a means to increase the demand for oligonucleotides, which he and his fellow lab workers were arduously crafting by hand, an extremely time intensive process. A new machine had helped to shorten the process from three weeks to eight hours threatening job security at the lab, unless new uses and need for the molecules could be found. As he followed the mesmerizing turns of the circuitous route his thoughts drifted towards ways and means of reading DNA's sequence, compelling as the source code of the human gene yet at the time still unfathomable, the two key hurdles being abundance and distinction. Yet within a few miles along that mountainous thoroughfare on that sweltering California eve, Kary Mullis had puzzled out a way to overcome both.
It is not just the science behind a new idea but the understanding of the potential of the idea that constitutes great science. Kary Mullis' contribution to science has changed our lives forever. PCR is a method that takes a few fragments of genetic material and duplicates these into millions within a short time frame. It is a rapid and cost effective method of amplifying segments of DNA to provide sufficient amounts for molecular and genetic analysis, sometimes referred to as "molecular photocopying". This capability catalyzed a paradigm shift within the scientific realm. This discovery of PCR yielded virtually infinite applications leading to the development of numerous novel laboratory and clinical techniques and provided the essential tool fostering the global race towards gene sequencing, fueling the science of genomics in the process. The majority of the mapping techniques utilized for the Human Genome Project were dependent on PCR. It has been heralded as the key that opened the door to DNA fingerprinting, the ability to diagnosis genetic disorders and the potentials of genetic engineering, providing entry to the possibilities of personalized medicine and curing disease. The fields of biotechnology and pharmaceutical research were greatly impacted, as PCR delivered new means for the detection of bacteria or viruses. It has also expanded the realm of forensics; capturing the world's imaginations along the way, providing for example the theoretical basis for concepts such as the novel and motion picture Jurassic Park because of its ability to extract DNA from fossils. Today PCR technology represents an annual multi-billion dollar a year industry and served and continues to foster numerous subsequent technologies.
Having potentially reset the future of the world as a growing civilization, as PCR continues to expand the boundaries of science unraveling the complex strands of our heredity and opening wider the window of our evolutionary future, some might be content to rest on one's accumulated laurels at this point, but not Dr. Mullis. Escaping the more stereotypical mold of the bench scientist, Kary Mullis demonstrates unique individualism not often found in today's convergence of academic conformity. Among his many interests, he counts surfing among his hobbies. On the day of the announcement that he had won the Nobel Prize, Kary Mullis managed to elude the throngs of press by "catching waves" with his friends. A true creative thinker, it is his ceaseless curiosity that propels him to question the status quo and look at everyday occurrences from an original perspective.