Nobel Prize winner explains origins of revolutionary discovery

Nobel Prize-winning chemist Dr. Kary Mullis describes how he was driving down the highway very late one night when he had an epiphany for a way to generate a thousand to a million copies of a DNA strand all at once. Mullis later won the Nobel Prize in 1993 for inventing the Polymerase Chain Reaction, which is now indispensable for many medical and biological research applications. "Someday the little things that pop into your head might be worth a lot," asserted Mullis, "so be entrepreneurial with your ideas and don't think they are worthless."

Kary B. Mullis, Nobel Prize winner and biochemist, drew a large crowd to Forum Hall yesterday afternoon for his lecture for the 20th anniversary of his revolutionary breakthrough in the study of genetics and how he discovered the process that would change nearly every area of biology, chemistry and biochemistry forever.

In the lecture, Mullis went into detail about his personal history as a scientist, what he struggled with while working as a professional and how his discovery on the polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, came to life as a young biochemist. Mullis said that his entire breakthrough was almost by accident.

“I invented PCR because I was trying to solve the problem to something totally trivial and different,” Mullis said. “I found PCR because I wasn’t even looking for it.”

During his research on prenatal women with high risk of sickle-cell anemia, he wanted to develop a test method that would give women a quick and accurate result on their children’s diagnosis. This would have replaced ones that, at the time, took over two months of time and was rather inaccurate.

“If you’re working on something that’s never been done before then there is a part of your brain that tells you not to stick your head up and to stay down,” Mullis said.

He stated that he was in shock at the unknown and incredible potential of his discovery despite, what he described at the time, as rather harsh criticism by his professional peers to his initial findings.

Mullis continued in saying that despite his opposition, he continued to market his invention. Within a few short years, he saw his work with rapid genetic multiplication begin to revolutionize modern genetic research.

“It has completely changed the biochemical world,” Phillip Klebba, head of biochemistry and molecular biophysics at K-State, said. “Everything we do in laboratories now is based off of PCR, and his discoveries have changed the world in a very simple way. It was one of the most important Nobel Prizes awarded in the last 50 years.”

His discovery opened the door to almost every modern advancement in working with genetics. Mullis’s findings led to incredible advancements in DNA studies, forensic science, cloning, medical diagnosis, lab work, research and much more.

“As a student in biochemistry it was really impactful,” said Lorne Jordan, a graduate student in biochemistry and president of the Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics Graduate Student Association. “His work has forever changed our field and how we work with genetics, and it will continue to impact us in the future.”