JEREMY M. BERG | May 17, 2004 Issue - Vol. 82 Issue 20 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 82 Issue 20 | Web Exclusive
Issue Date: May 17, 2004


Learning of zinc finger proteins helped NIGMS's new director focus his research.
Department: Government & Policy

One of the biggest challenges for scientists starting their academic careers is choosing a research focus. For Jeremy M. Berg, director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences at the National Institutes of Health, the choice was a matter of combining his synthetic chemistry training with his budding interest in biology.

Berg–who has only recently taken on the charge of heading the NIH institute that funds the most chemistry–started his professional academic career at Johns Hopkins University in 1986. His research has focused on the structural and functional roles of metal ions, especially zinc, in proteins.


Years after writing his first grant in the area of zinc finger proteins, Berg is still unlocking keys to metal binding in proteins. But, he acknowledges, he owes his research direction to his postdoctoral studies of DNA-binding proteins.

"I had done my Ph.D. with Dick Holm at Harvard University on biologically motivated, but basically fairly hard-core inorganic chemistry. The great majority of my time was spent making organic ligands and doing synthesis.

"Then, as a postdoc, I decided I really wanted to do something much more biological and started working on a DNA-binding protein. I had always been interested in structure, but I hadn't taken much biology. It was a complete shift and I was learning as I was going.

"Following my postdoc, I had a faculty position in the chemistry department at Hopkins. The question then was should I go back to inorganic chemistry, where I had a Ph.D.'s worth of training, or stay in the DNA-binding protein business, which I had been doing for a year or so and was still very much developing?

"It was at that time that a paper appeared on the first of the zinc finger proteins to be characterized, so that's what I decided to write my first grant on. In terms of my direction in research, this was definitely an Aha! moment."

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