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Paul Berg

(1926 - 2023)

Paul Berg was born on June 30, 1926, in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Russian immigrants. He attended Abraham Lincoln High School and later recalled, “With time, many of the facts I learned were forgotten, but I never lost the excitement of discovery.”

After high school, Berg served in the Navy during World War II.

He received his B.S. in biochemistry from Penn State University in 1948 and Ph.D. in biochemistry from Case Western Reserve University in 1952. He did postdoctoral research at the Institute of Cytophysiology in Copenhagen and at Washington University in St. Louis where he later became a professor. He worked with Arthur Kornberg, another Jewish professor. After Kornberg won the Nobel Prize in Physiology, Berg followed him to Stanford.

In 1971, he transferred material from one organism to another, creating the first recombinant DNA (rDNA). He later organized a meeting of scientists to establish safeguards against the misuse of genetic research.

The New York Times obituary noted that the creation of rDNA was the first link in the chain of advances that has led to the genetic engineering of new therapeutic treatments for diseases and of vaccines, like the messenger RNA versions used to counter the virus that causes Covid-19.

In 1980, he shared half of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry with the team of Walter Gilbert and Frederick Sanger. All three were recognized for their important contributions to basic research in nucleic acids.

The following press release from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences describes Berg's work:

The attributes of life and living organisms, such as reproductive ability, growth, motility and response to external stimuli, are outward manifestations of a very complicated network of coupled chemical reactions. The chemical machinery of a living cell is governed by DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) in its chromosomes. DNA carries out its task by determining which enzymes a cell shall manufacture. The enzymes impart to the cell its characteristic chemical pattern by their ability to speed up (catalyze) given chemical reactions in a specific manner. The scientists who have been awarded this year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry have developed methods making it possible to map in considerable detail the structure and function of DNA.

Nucleic acids (e.g. DNA) and proteins (e.g. enzymes) consist of giant molecules (macromolecules), which are built up by smaller molecules, functioning as building blocks, linked together into long chains. The building blocks of DNA are called nucleotides, and in enzymes they are named amino acids. We know through investigations which have led to earlier Nobel Prize Awards, that DNA expresses its genetic message by the sequence of its building blocks determining the sequence of amino acids in an enzyme. But different cells differ in their chemical machinery, and there are consequently parts of the DNA molecule which control how much of its message which shall be copied. In higher organisms the chromosomes have in addition DNA with an hitherto unknown function.

The scientific contributions which are now awarded with Nobel Prizes have to a considerable degree increased our knowledge of the way in which DNA as carrier of the genetic traits govern the chemical machinery of the cell. Berg was the first investigator to construct a recombinant-DNA molecule, i.e. a molecule containing parts of DNA from different species, e.g. a chromosome from a virus combined which genes from a bacterial chromosome. His pioneering experiment has resulted in the development of a new technology, often called genetic engineering or gene manipulation, which has already had important practical applications, e.g. the manufacture of human hormone with the aid of bacteria. Berg performed his experiment, however, as part of an incisive analysis of the chromosome of an ape virus (called SV 40) Viruses contain DNA (or sometimes RNA, another nucleic acid). They cause disease by introducing foreign genetic information in a cell and in this way disturbing its chemical machinery. As DNA molecules from viruses are relatively small, they are excellent objects of investigation for the study of the relationship between the chemical structure and biological function of DNA.

The investigations of Berg, Gilbert and Sanger have given us a detailed insight into the chemical basis of the genetic machinery in living organisms. They have already formed the foundation for important technical applications. In an extended perspective they will certainly play a decisive role in our efforts to understand the nature of cancer, as in this disease there is a malfunction in the control, by the genetic material, of the growth and division of cells.

Berg was also a recipient of the Eli Lilly Award in Biological Chemistry in 1959, the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award in 1980 and the National Medal of Science in 1983. 

Berg died on February 15, 2023. His wife Mildred Levy died in 2021. He is survived by a brother, Jack, and a son, John.

Sources: Wikipedia.

Don R. Hecker, Paul Berg, Nobel-Winning Pioneer of Genetic Engineering, Is Dead at 96, New York Times, (February 21, 2023).