Paul Berg is an American biochemist who won a share of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1980. His development of a technique for splicing together deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) from different types of organisms was one of the biggest contributions to the field of genetics in the 20th century. The son of a clothing manufacturer in New York, he developed an interest in science during his school days. An avid reader, he was deeply influenced by the books ‘Arrowsmith’ by Sinclair Lewis and ‘Microbe Hunters’ by Paul DeKruif which in part influenced him to become a scientist. The unwavering support of one his teachers also helped him to recognize his calling in the scientific field. He received his Bachelor of Science degree in biochemistry from Penn State University and Ph.D. in biochemistry from Case Western Reserve University following which he began his academic career. He worked as a professor at Washington University School of Medicine and Stanford University School of Medicine where he spent several years of his career. He also served as the director of the Beckman Center for Molecular and Genetic Medicine. He continues to be active in research even after his retirement from his administrative and teaching posts in 2000.
Childhood & Early Life
Paul Berg was born on June 30, 1926, in Brooklyn, New York, as one of three sons of Harry Berg, a clothing manufacturer, and Sarah Brodsky, a homemaker.
He attended the Abraham Lincoln High School and graduated in 1943. His schooling years instilled in him a keen interest in scientific pursuits and cemented his ambition to become a scientist.
He served in the United States Navy from 1943 to 1946 before furthering his education. He then entered the Pennsylvania State University from where he received a degree in biochemistry in 1948.
Proceeding to the Case Western Reserve University where he was a National Institutes of Health fellow from 1950 to 1952, he received his doctorate degree in biochemistry in 1952.
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From 1952 to 1954, Paul Berg did postdoctoral training as an American Cancer Society research fellow, working with Herman Kalckar at the Institute of Cytophysiology in Copenhagen, Denmark.
He also worked with biochemist Arthur Kornberg at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri from 1953 to 1954, and held the position of scholar in cancer research from 1954 to 1957.
In 1956, he became an assistant professor of microbiology at the University of Washington School of Medicine, a position he held until 1959 when he left to join the Stanford University School of Medicine as a professor of biochemistry. He would remain with Stanford until his retirement four decades later.
It was during the 1950s that Berg became seriously involved in research on RNA and DNA substances. He studied how amino acids—the building blocks of proteins—are linked together according to the template carried by a form of RNA, called messenger RNA (mRNA).
He was particularly intrigued by the structure and function of genes and experimented to combine genetic material from different species in order to study how these individual units of heredity worked. His investigations on the actions of isolated genes ultimately led to the development of methods for gene splicing of recombinant DNA. Berg then used this newly discovered technique for his studies of viral chromosomes.
His discoveries held tremendous potential for practical applications, one of the earliest ones being the development of a strain of bacteria containing the gene for producing the mammalian hormone insulin. The recombinant DNA technology also paved the way for a new medical approach to treating diseases by a technique called gene therapy.
Berg was the chairman of the Department of Biochemistry at Stanford from 1969 to 1974. In 1970, he was named the Sam, Lula and Jack Willson Professor of Biochemistry. He was also senior postdoctoral fellow of the National Science Foundation (1961-68) and non-resident fellow of the Salk Institute (1973-83).
He served as director of the Beckman Center for Molecular and Genetic Medicine from 1985 until 2000. He retired from his administrative and teaching posts in 2000, continuing to be active in research.
Paul Berg is best known for his development of a technique for gene splicing of recombinant DNA. The first scientist to create a molecule containing DNA from two different species by inserting DNA from another species into a molecule, he made revolutionary contributions to the development of modern genetic engineering.
Awards & Achievements
Paul Berg was awarded one-half of the 1980 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for "his fundamental studies of the biochemistry of nucleic acids, with particular regard to recombinant DNA" while the other half was given jointly to Walter Gilbert and Frederick Sanger for "their contributions concerning the determination of base sequences in nucleic acids."
In 1983, Berg was presented with the National Medal of Science by President Ronald Reagan.
In 2005, he was awarded the Biotechnology Heritage Award by the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) and the Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF).
He was honoured with the Wonderfest's Carl Sagan Prize for Science Popularization in 2006.
Personal Life & Legacy
Paul Berg married Mildred Levy in 1947 and has one son.