Illustrations: Shira Inbar

The Nobel Prize-Winning, LSD Dropping, Yet Problematic Scientist Who Invented PCR

‘The world owes him some gratitude, but he was not pleasant’

Wudan Yan
Published in
13 min readDec 9, 2020

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EEvery day, hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of molecular reactions are happening in laboratories worldwide. Small droplets of liquid that give us a lens into an individual’s respiratory pathways are analyzed for whether or not they contain the pathogen of the year: SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. The technique used for this analysis is called polymerase chain reaction (PCR), and it exploits the ability of genetic material to replicate. Although imperfect, it’s been critical in diagnosing the disease by amplifying genes specific to SARS-CoV-2. When it’s accurate, PCR helps confirm positive cases, slows the spread of infection, and allows health officials to treat individuals who have Covid-19.

In a sense, Covid-19 has popularized PCR. Over the last nine months, as the virus ballooned, PCR has transformed from a technical term used nearly exclusively by scientists — and one that would be flagged as jargon by many science editors — to one that has become a part of the general vernacular. While PCR is now well-known, many may not know the person who developed the idea.

If James Watson, Francis Crick, and Rosalind Franklin uncovered the secret of life by documenting the discovery of DNA in the 1950s, Kary Mullis, PhD, decoded it with PCR. Mullis came up with the idea in 1983, and a decade later, won the Nobel Prize in recognition of his work.

Without PCR, science and the world as we know it — including having a testing method for Covid-19 — wouldn’t exist. “PCR is veritably synonymous with biotechnology itself,” says Richard Doyle, PhD, a historian of science focusing on information biology at Pennsylvania State University. Without it, projects such as the Human Genome Project, an ambitious endeavor to understand the secrets of our genes, would not even be conceivable.

Mullis passed away last year at 74 in his home in Newport Beach, California, due to complications from pneumonia. He has frequently been described as “eccentric” and “quirky” for his open use of psychedelics, belief in astrology, and an encounter with a glowing raccoon. Some may even argue that Mullis was…

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