“What if I had not taken LSD ever; would I have still invented PCR? I don’t know. I doubt it. I seriously doubt it.”
In 1986, biochemist Kary Mullis invented the polymerase chain reaction, a technique that allows biologists to quickly produce a large number of copies of a segment of DNA. The reaction starts with heat. DNA is warmed until its two strands separate, leaving two lonesome strings of genetic material. The next step is to replicate the DNA, but there is a problem: Normal DNA polymerase cannot function at the high temperatures needed to separate the strands. Herein lies Mullis’ genius.
An outdoorsy character, Mullis thought about thermophilic bacteria, bacteria that live in very hot environments, yet replicate DNA nevertheless. These bacteria produce a special kind of DNA polymerase that can function during PCR.
Now, it is difficult to overstate the impact PCR has had on modern science. Virtually every modern biology lab uses it. Key to this story, however, is the inspiration behind the discovery. Mullis, who developed as a thinker in the 1960s, credits the psychedelic drug Lysergic acid-N ,N-diethylamide, commonly known as LSD, as instrumental in developing PCR.
“I could sit on a molecule and watch the particles go by. I learnt that partly on psychedelic drugs.” Do we take this inspiration seriously, or do we dismiss Mullis’ claims as the words of a crazed hippy?
First the science, then the philosophy. LSD works by pinding to receptors that will normally take serotonin. In some cases, LSD mimics serotonin, creating the same kind of cellular response. In other cases, LSD blocks serotonin because it has a higher affinity to certain receptors. At the more macro scale, we know that psilocybin, the active ingredient in “shrooms,” causes a number of areas of the brain to fire in synchrony with one another. In cognitive neuroscience, when two areas fire in synchrony, this is interpreted to mean that those areas are “connected.”
The effects of shrooms on the brain are thought to be very similar to the effects of LSD. With that assumption, one could say that psilocybin causes the brain to form unique connections that are absent in the normal brain. Perhaps this is the biological basis behind the increase in creativity we see in people who have taken psychedelics.
At the even broader, socio-cultural scale, we can identify LSD as a driving force for creativity and nonconformity in art, literature and music in the 1960s. With all this in mind, does this mean people interested in enhancing their creativity should take LSD? Well, probably not.
As one might expect, psychedelics come with a great deal of psychological risk. While LSD will not exactly harm your body in the way a poison might, there have been cases of people suffering from psychological trauma or hurting themselves while on a psychedelic.
Circling back to Mullis, it is important to note that he is by no means the ideal scientist. PCR was his only substantial contribution to science, and, since then, he has been vocal in denying climate change and refuting that HIV causes AIDS. Perhaps this same anti-conformist attitude allowed him to shift a paradigm in science in inventing PCR. While we need thinkers with unique inspirations to come up with creative solutions to longstanding problems, maybe we can use a healthy dose of conformity every now and then. By wandering too far into nonconformity, we run the risk of denying the traditions that govern our lives for good reasons.
Ayan Mandal is a sophomore in the College. Grey Matter appears every other Tuesday.