PCR stands for “Polymerase Chain Reaction”, but it could just as well be “Polymerase Chain Revolution”. I know that even those who do not work on DNA or molecular biology are aware that PCR is a tremendously powerful tool that influences many areas of our life. Forensics is a classic example, when PCR is used not only to help a prosecutor’s case, but what I find even more fascinating, to prevent innocent people from paying for a crime they did not commit. Many people on death row have been released from prison thanks to one of the most elegant and surprisingly simple techniques in molecular biology. Through PCR, a specific segment of DNA is replicated over and over and over inside a tiny plastic tube. The ability to make a lot of DNA starting with a few molecules opened the doors to countless types of studies, from evolution to detection of genetic and infectious diseases. For biochemists, it is actually impossible to do research without PCR. Taking our lab as an example, we use it almost on a daily basis, either to make precise alterations in bacterial genes, or to delete bacterial genes from the chromosome. Without this technology, many of our experiments could not be performed, whereas others would take months instead of days, or even hours.
The genius behind the invention of PCR is Dr. Kary Mullis, who won the Chemistry Nobel Prize exactly twenty years ago, in 1993. His own recollection of his scientific journey can be found in the fascinating (and at times controversial) book “Dancing Naked in the Mind Field”.
“We were at mile marker 46.58 on Highway 128, and we were at the very edge of the dawn of the age of PCR. I could feel it”. (Dancing Naked in the Mind Field, page 7)
Phil and I happened to travel right through that highway several times last week, and we made sure to take the book with us so we could read it under the spell of that beautiful setting.
“When you get the hang of it, science, like everything else people do for a living, is pretty straightforward. You are in the business of solving puzzles. The way to approach a puzzle is to think about it for a while, look at all the facts you can find out about it, and then take a guess. Propose a solution. The next step is to try your best to disprove your solution. Show that the pieces don’t fit together in the way that you have proposed. If you can do that, then propose another solution. And then do the same thing. Reality is a tricky little puzzle”. (K. Mullis, Dancing Naked in the Mind Field, page 50).
Through my work, I had the chance to meet incredibly impressive people. One such person was Joe Neilands, Phil’s PhD advisor from Berkeley. The impact of Neilands on Phil’s scientific career and political views was huge. Even though Joe passed away many years ago, Phil always includes a picture of him in his talks, a well-deserved tribute to the man who discovered siderophores. Siderophores (as I mentioned in the blog before) are molecules that allow bacteria and other microorganisms to survive in a world where iron is virtually unavailable. I knew that Kary Mullis was a PhD student in Neilands’ lab, in fact he was still around for a while when Phil joined the lab. I was thrilled to find out several references to his great mentor in the book.
“The lab in which I learned the most about life was presided over by Joe Neilands. (…) Joe Neilands made me aware of the present-day planet. I already knew about the universe but had spent little time thinking about today and the people around me”. (Dancing Naked in the Mind Field, page 35).
Tomorrow will be a special day for us. Kary Mullis will be in town to present a conference at our department, invited by Phil. He will have lunch with graduate students, talk to faculty, and certainly fascinate us with his recollections of the discovery of PCR. The talk is open to the public, so if you find yourself “in the neighborhood”, consider dropping by… 😉
NOTE ADDED AFTER PUBLICATION OF THIS POST: Conference will be streamed live and open to the public, so if you want to listen to him, join us by clicking here (you can also watch it later, it will be saved on the site).
I am so excited to finally meet him! I know it will be a great event for our department and a unique opportunity for graduate students to interact with someone who is not only brilliant, but is also not afraid to speak his own mind and to swim against the current, no matter how strong a current it is.
“The laws of science are demonstrable. They are not beliefs. When experiments in our century showed that Newton’s gravitational laws were not quite accurate, we changed the laws – despite Newton’s good name and holy grave in Cambridge. Relativity fits the facts better. This is the way science has been done now for almost four centuries, and because of science – not religion or politics – even people like you and me can have possessions that only a hundred years ago kings would have gone to war to own. Scientific method should not be taken lightly”. (Dancing Naked in the Mind Field, page 112).
ONE YEAR AGO: October 16: World Bread Day
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THREE YEARS AGO: 36 Hour Sourdough Baguettes
FOUR YEARS AGO: October 16 is World Bread Day