WORDS FROM THE FRONT
Spin July 1994
Mullis, winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in chemistry, has rocked
the world of science with his party-boy surfer demeanor. Now he's
ready to take on the AIDS establishment. Celia Farber talks to
the rebel genius.
The first time
I interviewed Kary Mullis was in 1991, in the bar of a hotel somewhere
in New Jersey while a blizzard raged outside. His demeanor suprised
me. Here was a man responsible for one of the greatest scientific
inventions of the century - the mass duplication of DNA - and he
swaggered in wearing jeans, cracking jokes in a sharp southern accent,
ordering drinks, and behaving overall like a regular person. He
utterly lacked that sterile, statesmanlike aura that usually looms
over Men of Science.
who has been described in the press as possessing a "creative
nonconformity that verges on the lunatic," struck me as a person
with a pure and insatiable curiosity. He had as many questions for
me as I had for him. For instance, by the end of the interview,
I recall him asking me to articulate why it would matter if I were
to discover that the hotel lobby, the bar, the bartender, the drinks,
and our conversation had all been an electronic mirage.
of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) won him the Nobel Prize in
chemistry in 1993. PCR is a remarkably simply yet revolutionary
method of selectively multiplying and mass-producing specific DNA
segments in just hours. Previously, DNA could be multiplied, but
not isolated, and it is in the isolation that the revolutionary
kernel lies. Scientists can now undertake everything from detecting
hereditary cancers in foetuses, to solving impossible murder mysteries,
to retracing the very depts of evolution. The London Observer trumpeted:
"Not since James Watt walked across Glasgow Green in 1765 and
realized that the secondary steam condenser would transform steam
power, an inspiration that set loose the industrial revolution,
has a single, momentous idea been so well recorded in time and place."
Now there can
be precise biological vision where there used to be darkness. Speculation
can crystalize into fact, and lives are already being changed by
the PCR machine, now a staple of every biology laboratory. An American
soldier killed in Vietnam, for instance, was identified after more
than a generation by matching the DNA in a lock of his baby hair
to a single bone found on the battlefield. A man who had served
nine years in prison for rape and murder he did not commit was released
thanks to a PCR test on a dried speck of semen taken from the crime
scene. President Lincoln's suspected genetic disease, Marfan's syndrome,
can finally be diagnosed based on his store bone fragments. The
FBI expects that PCR will one day make it possible to identify extortionists
by the DNA from their salvia left on the flap of an envelope, and
even ancient DNA from dinosaurs can be resurrected and studied.
In fact, PCR was the conceptual root of Michael Crichton's blockbuster
novel Jurassic Park.
PCR has also
had a great impact on the field of AIDS, or rather, HIV research.
PCR can, among other things, detect HIV in people who test negative
to the HIV antibody test.
The word "eccentric"
seems to come up often in connection with Mullis name: His first
published scientific paper, in the premier scientific journal Nature
in 1986, described how he viewed the universe while on LSD - pocked
with black holes containing antimatter, for which time runs backward.
He has been known to show photographs of nude girlfriends during
his lectures, their bodies traced with Mandelbrot fractal patterns.
And as a side project, he is developing a company which sells lockets
containing the DNA of rock stars. But it is his views on AIDS that
have really set the scientific establishment fuming.
his friend and colleague Dr. Peter Duesberg, does not believe that
AIDS is caused by the retrovirus HIV. He is long-standing member
of the Group for the Reappraisal of the HIV-AIDS Hypothesis, the
500-member protest organization pushing for a re-examination of
the cause of AIDS.
One of Duesberg's
strongest arguments in the debate has been that the HIV virus is
barely detectable in people who suffer from AIDS. Ironically, when
PCR was applied to HIV research, around 1989, researchers claimed
to have put this complaint to rest. Using the new technology, they
were suddenly able to see viral particles in the quantities they
couldn't see before. Scientific articles poured forth stating that
HIV was now 100 times more prevalent than was previously thought.
But Mullis himself was unimpressed. "PCR made it easier to
see that certain people are infected with HIV," he told Spin
in 1992," and some of those people came down with symptoms
of AIDS. But that doesn't begin even to answer the question, 'Does
HIV cause it?'"
went on to echo one of Duesberg's most controversial claims. "Human
beings are full of retroviruses," he said, "We don't know
if it is hundreds or thousands or hundreds of thousands. We've only
recently started to look for them. But they've never killed anybody
before. People have always survived retroviruses."
the popular wisdom that the disease-causing mechanisms of HIV are
simply too "mysterious" to comprehend. "The mystery
of that damn virus," he said at the time, "has been generated
by the $2 billion a year they spend on it. You take any other virus,
and you spend $2 billion, and you can make up some great mysteries
about it too."
Like so many
great scientific discoveries, the ideas for PCR came suddenly, as
if by direct transmission from another realm. It was during a late-night
drive in 1984, the same year, ironically that HIV was announced
to be the "probable" cause of AIDS.
just driving and thinking about ideas and suddenly I saw it,"
Mullis recalls. "I saw the polymerase chain reaction as clear
as if it were up on a blackboard in my head, so I pulled over and
started scribbling." A chemist friend of his was asleep in
the car, and, as Mullis described in a recent special edition of
Scientific American: "Jennifer objected groggily to the delay
and the light, but I exclaimed I had discovered something fantastic.
Unimpressed, she went back to sleep."
scribbling calculations, tight there in the car, until the formula
for DNA amplification was complete. The calculation was based on
the concept of "reiterative exponential growth processes,"
which Mullis had picked up from working with computer programs.
After much table-pounding, he convinced the small California biotech
company he was working for, Cetus, that he was to something. Good
thing they finally listened: They sold the patent for PCR to Hoffman-LaRoche
for the staggering $300 million - the most money ever paid for a
patent. Mullis meanwhile received a $10,000 bonus.
reports that as a child, her lively son got into all kinds of trouble
- shutting down the house's electricity, building rockets, and blasting
small frogs hundreds of feet into the air. These days, he likes
to surf, Rollerblade, take pictures, party with his friends - most
of them whom are not scientists - and all, he loves to write.
Mullis is notoriously
difficult to track down and interview. I had left several messages
on his answering machine at home, but had gotten no response. Finally,
I called him in the late evening and he picked up, in the middle
of bidding farewell to some dinner guests. He insisted he would
not give me an interview, but after a while, a conversation was
underway, and I asked if I couldn't just please turn my tape recorder
on. "Oh what the hell," he gruffed. "Turn the fucker
Our talk focused
on AIDS. Though Mullis has not been particularly vocal about his
HIV skepticism, his convictions have not, to his credit, been muddled
or softened by his recent success and mainstream acceptability.
He seems to revel in his newly acquired power. "They can't
pooh-pooh me now, because of who I am," he says with a chuckle
- and by all accounts, he's using that power effectively.
Nightline approached Mullis about participating in a documentary
on himself, he instead urged them to focus their attention on the
HIV debate. "That's a much more important story," he told
the producers, who up to that point had never acknowledged the controversy.
In the end, Nightline ran a two-part series, the first on Kary Mullis,
the second on the HIV debate. Mullis was hired by ABC for a two-week
period, to act as their scientific consultant and direct them to
The show was
superb, and represented a historic turning point, possibly even
the end of the seven-year media blackout on the HIV debate. But
it still didn't fulfil Mullis ultimate fantasy. "What ABC needs
to do," says Mullis, "is talk to [Chairman of the National
Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) Dr. Anthony]
Fauci and [Dr. Robert] Gallo [one of the discoverers of HIV] and
show that they're assholes, which I could do in ten minutes."
But, I point
out, Gallo will refuse to discuss the HIV debate, just as he's always
he will," Mullis shoots back, anger rising in his voice. "But
you know what? I would be willing to chase the little bastard from
his car to his office and say, 'This is Kary Mullis trying to ask
you a goddamn simple question,' and let the cameras follow. If people
think I'm a crazy person, that's okay. But here's a Nobel Prize-winner
trying to ask a simple question from those who spent $22 billion
and killed 100,000 people. It has to be on TV. It's a visual thing.
I'm not unwilling to do something like that."
then continues. "And I don't care about making an ass of myself
because most people realize I am one."
people, even within the ranks of the HIV dissidents, have of late
tried to distance themselves from the controversial Duesberg, Mullis
defends him passionately and seems genuinely concerned about his
fate. "I was trying to stress this point to the ABC people"
he says, "that Peter has been abused seriously by the scientific
establishment, to the point where he can't even do any research.
Not only that, but his whole life is pretty much in disarray because
of this, and it is only because he has refused to compromise his
scientific moral standards. There ought to be some goddamn private
foundation in the country, that would say, 'Well, we'll move in
where the NIH [National Institutes of Health] dropped off. We'll
take care of it. You just keep right on saying what you're saying,
Peter. We think you're an asshole, and we think you are wrong, but
you're the only dissenter, and we need one, because it's science,
it's not religion.' And that was one of the reasons why I cooperated
waiting to be convinced that we're wrong," Mullis continues.
"I know it ain't going to happen. But if it does, I will tell
you this much - I will be the first person to admit it. A lot of
people studying this disease are looking for the clever little pathways
they can piece together, that will show how this works. Like, 'What
if this molecule was produced by this one and then this one by this
one, and then what if this one and that one induce this one'- that
stuff becomes, after two molecules, conjecture of the rankest kind.
People who sit there and talk about it don't realize that molecules
themselves are somewhat hypothetical, and that their interactions
are more so, and that the biological reactions are even more so.
You don't need to look that far. You don't discover the cause of
something like AIDS by dealing with incredibly obscure things. You
just look at what the hell is going on. Well, here's a bunch of
people that are practising a new set of behavioural norms. Apparently
it didn't work because a lot of them got sick. That's the conclusion.
You don't necessarily know why it happened. But you start there."
out that transportation and sheer population growth have greatly
increased the number of other human beings a person is likely to
come into contact with during the course of a lifetime, and argues
that "bathhouse cultures of some metropolitan gay communities"
enabled an unprecedented exchange of infectious viruses. Such a
viral overload, Mullis suggests, may trigger an immune chain reaction
that could destabilize or debilitate immune function. Transfusion
of blood from one such highly infected individual, he argues further,
could transfer enough viruses to cause immune dysfunction in the
recipient. He disagrees with Duesberg's idea that AIDS is a toxicological
syndrome, but says that he feels both of their theories "ought
to be tested at least."
He is aware
that this view of AIDS - one that encompasses each person's history
or "lifestyle" - is rejected by virtually all AIDS organizations,
researchers, and activists, who consider it "blaming the victim."
"It's not blaming the victim," Mullis argues. "It's
not anybody's fault. They just did something that didn't work, that's
on he hostility with which these ideas are met, Mullis says, "People
don't want to hear from somebody like me who's not a member of their
society. They say to me, 'You don't know shit about this, Mullis.'
People say to me, 'How many people have you seen die of this disease?'
They say, 'You don't know what causes it because you've never watched
I ask Mullis
why he ever became involved in this debate, particularly since he's
an independent scientists, with no financial or professional stake
in either point of view.
driving one night," Mullis explains, "must have been around
1987, from Berkeley down to La Jolla, and I was trying to stay awake.
I turned on public radio and there was Peter Duesberg. I knew who
he was and I knew there was some controversy about him but I didn't
know any details. And I just listened. And I said this man is pretty
Duesberg to speak at the chemistry conference he was organizing.
"At first the audience was ready to jeer him," Mullis
recalls. "The questions at first were kind of like 'you asshole.'
By the time the two hours were up, everybody was totally convinced
that he had a good case. After the animosity wears off - which takes
longer as he becomes more of a martyr - people realize this man
knows what the hell's going on and nobody else does. Afterward,
everybody came to my house for a party. I've got beautiful pictures
of Peter, swimming in the ocean without a wet suit." Mullis
laughs, then falls silent.
the guardians of the HIV establishment, such as Gallo and Fauci,
Mullis suddenly turns from rage to pity. "I feel sorry for
'em," he admits. "I want to have the story unveiled, but
you know what? I'm just not the kick-'em-in-the-balls kind of guy.
I'm a moral person, but I'm not a crusader. I think it's a terrible
tragedy that it's happened. There are some terrible motivations
of humans involved in this, and Gallo and Fauci have got to be some
of the worst."
Then the anger
kicks in again. "Personally, I want to see those fuckers pay
for it a little bit. I want to see them lose their position. I want
to see their goddamn children have to go to junior college. I mean,
who do we care about? Do we care about these people that are HIV-positive
whose lives have been ruined? Those are the people I'm the most
concerned about. Every night I think about this. I think, what is
my interest in this? Why do I care? I don't know anybody dying of
it. They're right about that. Well, except one of my girlfriend's
brothers died of it, and I think he died of AZT."
At this point,
Mullis voice starts to crack. "The horror of it is every goddamn
thing you look at, if you look at it through the glasses that you've
developed through looking at this thing, seems pretty scary to me.
Look at the oncogene people and I go, oh yeah, I know what they
are doing. Same stuff. Oncogenes don't have anything to do with
cancer. Radiation probably doesn't have anything to do with stopping
cancer. The drugs that we use on people - all those goddamn horrible
poisons - they're no less toxic than AZT. And we are doing it to
everybody. Everybody's aunt is being radiated once a goddamn month
and given drugs that are going to kill her. We're dealing with a
bunch of witch doctors. The whole medical profession - except for
the people that patch you up when you get a broken leg or you have
a pumbling problem - is really fucked. It's just a bunch of people
that have become socially important and very rich by thinking about
the fact that they might be able to cure the diseases that actually
cause people in our society to die. And they can't do shit about
it. It's scary, that's what it is."
He takes a
deep breath, and I realize that on the other end of the phone, Kary
Mullis, Nobel laureate, pioneer of the DNA revolution, has started
to cry. "God, I hate this kind of crap. I really don't want
to write about it. I'd like to write about something that's easy
to write about, where you don't have to come up with a conclusion
in the end. I've been writing about my boyhood, when I was a little
kid back on my grandfather's farm where we didn't know about black
widow spiders or all that stuff. But writing about that is so easy.
Sometimes in the morning, when it's a good surf, I go out there,
and I don't feel like it's a bad world. I think it's a good world,
the sun is shining. I'm really optimistic in the mornings. But,
you know, it's not because of you calling me. It's just thinking
about this issue, it just drives me to - I'm making tears thinking
about it. I don't see how to deal with it. I can't possibly write
a book that will describe it to somebody. You can't do a damn 22.8-minute
TV thing that is going to have any effect except to get somebody
to shoot through my window and hit me. I feel like I'm on a hostile
At a recent
community forum meeting in New York, a leading AIDS activist, when
asked about whether Mullis shouldn't be taken seriously, answered
that he should not, for he is a "sexist pig." This was
based on something Mullis allegedly said upon receiving the Nobel
prize - that the prize would be "a great way to pick up babes."
I present Mullis with this logic.
He sounds genuinely
confused, pointing out that his various women friends all tell him
that he's the only one they deal with who really loves women. "They
just want to show that I'm not politically correct," he says.
"Well I'm not. And the reason is that I already got my money
from the Swedes, right? I'm done, I'm fixed. I'm a free agent, and
it is the most wonderful feeling. There is nobody on the planet
that can fuck with me. And I can say exactly what I feel about any
issue and I'm going to do that. A lot of people are not going to
like it, but a lot of people are going to say, 'Well, that's really
cool that you said that." And I'm not really going to care
about the people who don't like it." *