Tuesday, April 19, 2016

PCR from the Car

From biochemistry to forensics, the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is a staple procedure in multiple scientific fields. PCR allows for the amplification of specific DNA regions using thermal cycling. This method is used in various applications such as DNA (paternity) testing, disease diagnosis, and genetic sequencing (Saiki et al. 1988). The development and optimization of this technique revolutionized biological research and remains just as relevant now as it was then (Bartlett and Stirling, 2003). While the development of PCR has been a collaborative effort where ideas continue to be built upon one another, there is one man in particular to thank for his creative contributions to this technique: Kary Mullis.

Born in 1944, Mullis grew up in North and South Carolina where he attended high school and found his knack for chemistry (Shmaefsky, 2006). He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry at the Georgia Institute of Technology, followed by a PhD in biochemistry at the University of California, Berkley (Autobiography, 1998). At first, Mullis strayed from a scientific career. After receiving his PhD, he went on to write fiction and continued exploring other careers as he managed a bakery for two years (Yoffe, 1994). Eventually, he wound up at the biotechnology company Cetus Corporation (Shmaefsky, 2006). It was here that he came up with ideas on how to improve the polymerase chain reaction, thus revolutionizing the field of genetics.

Mullis was neither at work nor at home when he had a spark of inspiration. Driving his Honda Civic with his girlfriend one night, he suddenly imagined using a pair of primers to bracket the target DNA sequence- an idea that would allow for more rapid amplification of DNA (Yoffe, 1994). As we have discussed in class, creativity often comes from random places at random times. Mullis' ideas reiterate the importance of creativity in scientific fields. While cultural stereotypes tend to separate science from creativity, one cannot realistically exist without the other.

By now, we have learned to not be surprised with the unconventionality of creative thinkers. Mullis qualifies as an unconventional scientist by today's standards; he would rather think of ideas while surfing or driving than be in the lab doing work (Fridell, 2005). Mullis' creative process reminds me of research done by Ritter et al. to determine the role of unconscious thought in creativity. While a lot of research suggests that unconscious thought does not generate more creative ideas than unconscious thought, Mullis demonstrates how the best ideas can come at times when we aren't trying.


"Autobiography". 1998. Nobel prize.

Bartlett, J., and Stirling, D. 2003. A Short History of the Polymerase Chain Reaction. PCR Protocols. Methods in Molecular Biology. 226: 3-6.

Fridell, R. 2005. Decoding life: unraveling the mysteries of the genome. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications. p. 88. ISBN 0-8225-1196-7.

Ritter, S. et al. 2012. Creativity: The role of unconscious processes in idea generation and idea selection. Elsevier. Thinking Skills and Creativity. 7: 21-27.
Saiki, R., et al. 1988. Primer-directed enzymatic amplification of DNA with a thermostable DNA polymerase. Science. 239 (4839): 487-491.

Shmaefsky, B. 2006. Biotechnology 101. Google. ISBN 978-0-313-33528-0.

Yoffe, E. 1994. Is Kary Mullis God? Nobel Prize winner's new life. Esquire. 122 (1): 68-75.

1 comment:

  1. This is a really interesting thought! It almost reminds me of the examples of creativity that we talked about in class where the creative person does not believe that they themselves are the source of the creativity (like the interview with author Elizabeth Gilbert or of the Danielson Famile). Maybe the creative Genius really is in the air!


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