Recombinant DNA Pioneer and Nobelist

Paul Berg

July 2023

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Years before Paul Berg would become a biochemist, and decades before he’d win a Nobel Prize, he conducted mini-research projects in an after-school science club, encouraged by a teacher to seek his own answers to scientific questions.

Portrait of Paul Berg with a microscopePhoto: Stanford News

“The satisfaction derived from solving a problem with an experiment was a very heady experience, almost addicting,” wrote Berg in his biography on NobelPrize.org. “Looking back, I realize that nurturing curiosity and the instinct to seek solutions are perhaps the most important contributions education can make.”

Paul Berg, whose work with recombinant DNA led to his sharing the 1980 Nobel Prize in chemistry, died February 15 at his home on campus. He was 96. 

Born in Brooklyn, New York, Berg graduated from Penn State University and Western Reserve University (now Case Western Reserve University). He came to Stanford in 1959 by way of Washington University School of Medicine, where he’d worked with fellow biochemist Arthur Kornberg. Kornberg, who would win a Nobel Prize later that year, asked Berg to join him on the faculty of the Stanford School of Medicine. There, the two established the biochemistry department.

Berg’s discoveries helped launch the biotech industry and led to such advances as hepatitis vaccines and synthetic insulin. “He was a pioneer in DNA splicing, putting different pieces of DNA together to modify genes,” says professor of molecular and cellular physiology Brian Kobilka, who won a Nobel Prize in 2012. “That is the foundation of probably 80 percent of what bench [researchers] do. We manipulate DNA all the time.”

In the 1970s, after he combined DNA from two organisms, Berg faced a public outcry that such genetic engineering could potentially damage human and environmental health. He organized the now-famous 1975 Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA, during which scientists wrote guidelines for themselves regarding ethics in genetic technology research, setting a precedent for how future researchers would respond to controversial new scientific knowledge.

At Stanford, Berg helped raise $50 million for the Beckman Center for Molecular and Genetic Medicine, which opened in 1989. As a professor, he trained thousands of scientists, his goal to nurture the same curiosity that motivated him, says biochemistry professor Mark Krasnow.

“It was never his ambition to be this rock-star scientist or to be famous,” says his son, John Berg, ’84. “What he was most proud of was to know that he had been an inspiration or a catalyst to the career of a medical student or a graduate student or postdoc.”

Berg was predeceased by his wife of 74 years, Mildred. In addition to his son, he is survived by his brother Jack.

Tracie White is a senior writer at Stanford. Email her at traciew@stanford.edu.

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