Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Happy Pearl anniversary PCR

Polymerase chain reaction, arguably the single most important molecular biological technique (or so I, with my training in molecular genetics might claim) turns 30 this year. The importance of this technique, that allows for easy, cheap and reliable amplification of a small amount of DNA into a large amount, cannot be understated.

On a personal level, every single project I've ever worked on in my seven or eight years in the lab has used PCR in one flavour or another, which in total probably accounts for more than half of the experiments I've ever done. PCR is a big deal to me as well the world.

So when Kary Mullis, the scientist who invented - and later won the Nobel prize for inventing - PCR came to London this week to give a talk commemorating this anniversary I jumped at the chance. (As an added bonus it was hosted in the Royal Institution, and I love a good poke around old scientific societies).

It was a nice talk. In all honesty, I went in with the expectation that he might air one of his less informed (or less palatable) personal views, but I was pleasantly surprised; the talk was pretty much entirely about the story of the making of PCR.

And a good talk it was. Kary is an engaging, funny, charismatic man. The story goes that before PCR he was a chemist arduously making oligonucleotides to order, saying that they "could make maybe three 15-base long oligonucleotides in a month". To someone who grew up being able to order a multitude of oligos of up to 100 odd bases, with all sorts of fancy modifications, and get them all delivered in a week or two, this dates the story pretty well.

After a friend and colleague figured out a way to automate the synthesis reaction, Mullis needed to think up something to do with all these oligos and keep himself and his labmates in work. Then, on that famous winding drive home, he had his Eureka moment.

It was an endearing talk, and I would recommend people listen to it (if they're able), I'm just sadly not sure how much of it I believe. It was all a bit too practised, a bit too perfect ("and then I turned to my girlfriend of the time and said, 'you know, if this works I might just get the Nobel prize"), and falling a little too much into "these are all the journals that turned me down, look at me now" category.

He even specifically went to great lengths to say how completely novel it was and that nothing even close had ever been done before, which I knew for a fact was just plain not true. Now obviously it would have been entirely possible for him not to have heard about this similar, pre-existing (but inferior) technique at the time, but to be saying in no uncertain terms that PCR was entirely novel 30 years down the line seems a bit rich. I'm not trying to discredit or impugn here; as I said, the development of PCR was a genuine feat of human ingenuity that boosted the biological sciences years forwards, but come on Kary, you got the Nobel, no need to be stingy with credit (or facts).

Unfortunately it was immediately followed by a rather dry panel section with a few pharma top bods talking about how to solve the problem of antibiotic resistance (as Mullis' current venture is developing drugs to help tackle said problem). The topic is undeniably incredibly important, but the dialogue was frankly a little too economic for my tastes: I can see how finding out just how much we need to grease industry to get them to make the drugs we need is important, it's just not how I'd choose to spend my evenings when I'm crammed into tiny seminar seats. That said, one of the speakers was Andrew Dillon, the CEO of NICE, who seemed to be a wonderfully sensible man (and thankfully bereft of the horrible corporate-talk that plagued some of the other speakers), which put a pleasant light on the end of the evening.

Too long without writing a blog post, and I'm rambling. I only really meant to write one thing, and that is happy Pearl anniversary PCR, keep up the good work.

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