The Nobel Prize-Winning, LSD Dropping, Yet Problematic Scientist Who Invented PCR

‘The world owes him some gratitude, but he was not pleasant’

Wudan Yan

Every day, hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of molecular reactions are happening in laboratories worldwide. Small droplets of liquid that give us a lens into an individual’s respiratory pathways are analyzed for whether or not they contain the pathogen of the year: SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. The technique used for this analysis is called polymerase chain reaction (PCR), and it exploits the ability of genetic material to replicate. Although imperfect, it’s been critical in diagnosing the disease by amplifying genes specific to SARS-CoV-2. When it’s accurate, PCR helps confirm positive cases, slows the spread of infection, and allows health officials to treat individuals who have Covid-19.

In a sense, Covid-19 has popularized PCR. Over the last nine months, as the virus ballooned, PCR has transformed from a technical term used nearly exclusively by scientists — and one that would be flagged as jargon by many science editors — to one that has become a part of the general vernacular. While PCR is now well-known, many may not know the person who developed the idea.


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