He Surfs, He Walks Mazes, He Invents PCR: Profile of Biochemist Kary Mullis

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NBC Today Show
Katie Couric/Bob Dotson
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Video News Report
NBCUniversal Media, LLC.
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1992 profile of biochemist Kary Mullis, inventor of polymerase chain reaction, a technique for copying a piece of DNA a billion-fold. (Mullis won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1993 for his discovery.)



"He Surfs, He Walks Mazes, He Invents PCR: Profile of Biochemist Kary Mullis." Bob Dotson, correspondent. NBC Today Show. NBCUniversal Media. 10 Feb. 1992. NBC Learn. Web. 11 January 2020.


Dotson, B. (Reporter), & Couric, K. (Anchor). (1992, February 10). He Surfs, He Walks Mazes, He Invents PCR: Profile of Biochemist Kary Mullis. [Television series episode]. NBC Today Show. Retrieved from https://archives.nbclearn.com/portal/site/k-12/browse/?cuecard=40398


"He Surfs, He Walks Mazes, He Invents PCR: Profile of Biochemist Kary Mullis" NBC Today Show, New York, NY: NBC Universal, 02/10/1992. Accessed Sat Jan 11 2020 from NBC Learn: https://archives.nbclearn.com/portal/site/k-12/browse/?cuecard=40398


He Surfs, He Walks Mazes, He Invents PCR: Profile of Biochemist Kary Mullis

KATIE COURIC, co-host:

There was some big news recently in the field of biotechnology. An agreement was reached whereby many more researchers will be able to use a fantastic process that, up to now, had been tightly controlled. The process is called PCR, for short, and it reproduces DNA, the basic building block of life. It's a process that scientists say will change the world, and it makes you wonder what kind of mind came up with it. NBC's Bob Dotson found out.

Dr. CARY MULLIS: We just got someone that started looking at things, you know. I think that'd be the funnest part is to say, `Let's see if there's anything that looks really odd.'

BOB DOTSON reporting:

Dr. Cary Mullis helped unlock the secrets of DNA, our biological road map. His invention changed the world forever. Now he's trying something new, surfing. This guy's nearly 50. Is he nuts?

Dr. MULLIS: You sort of like trust in the kelp gods.

DOTSON: And play, play until something seems simple. Doc Mullis believes that is the secret source of genius.

Dr. MULLIS: I think when people invent things, they don't think about now I'm going to invent something. You can't solve a problem, really, by working on it.

DOTSON: Next time you're trapped, can't find an answer, do what Doc Mullis does, look for the fun.

Dr. MULLIS: Like a lot of people, if they've been having a lot of problems in their life, they've accumulated a really bad set of auras and things around them; and this thing, in one single stroke, can take it right down to their scalp.

DOTSON: That toy led to this, a tool that can tell us which babies will inherit disease, which suspect was at a murder scene, even what killed an 8,000-year-old man. Think of DNA as the story of your life. A fleck of skin, a single strand of hair, contains enough information to write 1,000 books. Yet, researchers could never find snippets big enough to study until Cary Mullis looked at how nature reproduced DNA and decided there had to be an easier way. All the possibilities rattled around, none connected, until one day, driving through Northern California, he turned to look at a Buckeye tree and spotted something else.

Dr. MULLIS: It was a moment like a eureka kind of moment. Usually, when you see it out of the corner of your eye, kind of, something--something--something from memory and--that--that you have and nobody else has just suddenly rings a bell somewhere, and you say, `Ah, these things together will make that.' That's the solution.

DOTSON: A method more efficient than nature itself had designed.

Dr. MULLIS: These are such weird things. All of these have been bred for hundreds of years to be weird. That's got his brain on the outside of his head.

DOTSON: If Doc Mullis could slice a single molecule from that red-headed fish, his discovery, polymerase chain reaction, would make a billion copies in just a few hours.

Unidentified Man: My prediction is that someday he's going to win the Nobel Prize, just because he's allowed himself to think down pathways that no one else will have ever thought about.

DOTSON: Like, what if AIDS is caused, not by a single virus, but many, the result of modern travel.

Dr. MULLIS: If you simply think of the--the total number of pounds of human flesh that you can come in contact with now, directly or indirectly, through other people, it's huge compared with what it was. It's huge. You might cause some really significant problem with your immune system that would not have been anticipated by evolution.

DOTSON: Doc Mullis hangs a dozen such mysteries in his head, then walks them through a backyard maze.

Dr. MULLIS: And so, the 12 signs of the zodiac. We're there.

DOTSON: He and his assistant, Suzi Weiss, begin to question what seems obvious.

Dr. MULLIS: When the green plants first made oxygen, it destroyed 90 percent, 99 percent of all the different species here. The environmentalists would have said, `Don't allow green plants on the planet. It will kill everything.'

DOTSON: Doc has learned to laugh at that kind of thinking, and his own.

What are you doing, Cary?

Dr. MULLIS: I'm making a slight course correction here for--for Western civilization.

DOTSON: Really?

Dr. MULLIS: Uh-huh.

DOTSON: His investigations don't cost much.

Dr. MULLIS: OK. It's your pond for a little while.

DOTSON: He made only $10,000 from his DNA discovery, which is now worth millions.

Dr. MULLIS: Never to be seen again.

DOTSON: But he lives simply, pondering those questions at his cabin, the Institute for Further Study.

Dr. MULLIS: In fact, I'm the provisional director of the Institute for Further Study, awaiting further study.

DOTSON: Wonder what he does for spring break?

Dr. MULLIS: Ah, that's a beauty.

DOTSON: For Today, Bob Dotson, NBC News, at Doc Mullis' Institute for Further Study.