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Nobel laureate Paul Berg dies at 96

Stanford biochemist was as a founder of the molecular biology revolution

by Laurel Oldach , Laura Howes
February 22, 2023


A White man with gray hair wearing a suit and glasses stands in front of a research building.
Credit: Stanford Medicine
Paul Berg

Paul Berg, a Nobel laureate and emeritus professor in the Biochemistry Department at Stanford University School of Medicine, died Feb. 15 at the age of 96. He received half the 1980 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his studies of nucleic acid biochemistry and for constructing the first recombinant DNA molecules. He is also remembered for his exploration of the ethical implications of recombinant DNA and gene editing.

William Folk, a biochemist at the University of Missouri, has fond memories of his time in Berg’s lab as a PhD student. Berg and other founding members of the Stanford Biochemistry Department “created a rich and likely unique intellectual environment for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows and visiting scientists,” Folk says in an email.

Berg’s early research focused on metabolic enzymes and then protein translation in bacteria. In the mid-1960s, his research group became interested in DNA viruses that infect eukaryotes. As part of those studies, his lab produced the first-ever recombinant DNA by combining a viral genome with bacterial genes (Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 1972, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.69.10.2904). The lab soon realized that viruses could be used to introduce foreign DNA into the host cell’s genome and produce foreign proteins. The development of tools for constructing recombinant DNA and techniques for its use made new types of research possible, in what became known as the molecular biology revolution.

Berg immediately recognized the ethical questions raised by this work and became well known for tackling those questions the rest of his life. He chaired a US National Academy of Sciences committee charged with assessing the risks of recombinant DNA technology. That committee recommended approaching the new field with caution (Science 1974, DOI: 10.1126/science.185.4148.303). Berg also coorganized the influential Asilomar conference on recombinant DNA molecules in 1975. The conference was famously contentious but concluded with a set of guidelines constraining recombinant DNA research to mitigate the risks associated with genetic alteration. Decades later, after the controversial birth of two gene-edited babies in 2018, Berg was one of many high-profile researchers who called for a moratorium on heritable human gene editing (Nature 2019, DOI: 10.1038/d41586-019-00726-5).

Robert Margolskee, a researcher at the Monell Chemical Senses Center who trained in Berg’s lab, recalls in an email his “keen intellect, focused insight, drive, and highest ethical standards.” Other former students and postdocs remember Berg as a dedicated educator. In 1971, he participated in a whimsical film produced by his biochemistry students that demonstrated protein synthesis through interpretive dance. The film became a staple in college introductory biology courses.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1926, Berg became interested in science in junior high school. He completed his undergraduate studies at the Pennsylvania State University and a PhD in biochemistry at what was then Western Reserve University. He pursued postdoctoral research at the Institute of Cytophysiology of Copenhagen, Denmark, and the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis before starting an independent lab at the latter. Berg, along with future Nobel laureate Arthur Kornberg and other Washington University professors, moved to Stanford Medicine in the late 1950s to form a new Biochemistry Department. Berg remained at Stanford for the rest of his career. Although he stepped away from research in 2000, he continued working, serving as a scientific adviser and board member for several biotechnology companies and coauthoring several books.


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