Kary Mullis, who invented polymerase chain reaction (PCR)technology, and Michael Smith, who developed a technique toreprogram the genetic code in DNA molecules and replacespecific amino acids in proteins, were awarded the Nobel prizein chemistry on Wednesday. They will share an $825,000award.

Mullis developed PCR technology during the 1980s whileworking for Cetus Corp. The technology, available since 1985,enables one to amplify and make millions or billions of copiesof gene sequences in a few hours.

In announcing the Nobel awards, the Royal Swedish Academyof Sciences stated that the biomedical applications of the PCRmethod "are already legion."

With PCR it is possible to discover very small amounts offoreign DNA in an organism, which has been valuable fordetection of HIV. The technology is also used to localize geneticalterations underlying disease, amplify DNA from blood or hairfor forensic use in crime cases, and produce DNA from fossilremains.

Citing the latter as a "fantastic application" of PCR, the Swedishacademy noted that researchers have produced geneticmaterial from insects that have been extinct for more than 20million years by using the PCR method on DNA extracted fromamber.

Mullis is currently an independent scientist living in La Jolla,Calif. After leaving Cetus he became director of Xytronyx Inc. ofSan Diego.

Smith is a professor of biochemistry at the University of BritishColumbia in Vancouver and director of the university'sbiotechnology laboratory. He invented the process ofoligonucleotide-based site-directed mutagenesis in 1978 whenhe induced a mutation in a bacteriophagic virus and cured anatural mutant of the virus so it regained its naturalproperties.

Four years later, Smith and his colleagues produced andisolated large quantities of a mutated enzyme in which apredetermined amino acid had been exchanged for anotherone.

The Swedish academy said this finding has been important inbiotechnology "where the concept protein design has beenintroduced, meaning the construction of proteins with desirableproperties."

For instance, the academy noted, "attempts are being made toproduce biotechnically a mutated hemoglobin which may giveus a new means of replacing blood. By mutating proteins in theimmune system, researchers have come a long way towardconstructing antibodies that can neutralize cancer cells."

-- Brenda Sandburg News Editor

(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.