In this scientist spotlight post, we will learn about the controversial American biochemist Kary Mullis. Born on December 28, 1944 in Lenoir, North Carolina, Mullis developed an early interest in chemistry, claiming to have chemically synthesized fuel for model propulsion rockets in high school. He received his BSc degree in chemistry from the Georgia Institute of Technology and went on to complete a PhD in biochemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, where he studied iron transporter molecules in bacteria.
Mullis’ prize winning work began when he was employed as a DNA chemist at Cetus corporation, where in 1983, he made major improvements in the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) technique, for which he shared a Nobel Prize with Michael Smith in 1993. PCR is a molecular biology technique used to amplify a small size of DNA fragments into billions of copies, in an easy, quick, and inexpensive manner. The method works through the use of a heat stable DNA polymerase obtained from the bacteria Thermus aquaticus, which binds to RNA primers enclosing both ends of the DNA strand. PCR has become an indispensable tool in the field of biology today.
Around the late 90s and early 2000s, Mullis was in the spotlight again, but this time for his very controversial and problematic views. Mullis stated his skepticism of climate change and even denied the connection between HIV and AIDS. He highlighted his controversial views in his autobiography, which was published in 2000. Mullis used his Nobel laureate fame to promote HIV/AIDS denialism, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence proving otherwise.
Today, Mullis works for biotechnology company, Altermune LLC, where he has recently published work (after more than a decade of no publications) about the potential of redirecting a host’s immune response to target and destroy pathogens – an interesting area of research in the emerging field of immunotherapy.