Paul Berg is considered to be one of the few pioneers in molecular biology, which is essentially the application of chemistry to biological systems. His work with recombinant DNA provided scientists with a very valuable laboratory technique. Berg worked with cloning genes from two different organisms. These hybrid DNA molecules could be produced in larger amounts and the DNA sequence could then be determined. It was also possible to change the genes and put them back into the cells from which they were obtained to determine the effects these specific changes would have on the gene function. Genes from one organism, such as a bacterium, virus, or yeast cell, could be introduced into the cells of another simple organism by the same technique, thus adding new functions to organisms. Later, microorganisms were developed that would synthesize compounds useful in research, commerce, and medicine. Today, insulin and factor VIII are two common drugs produced by recombinant organisms that help treat diabetes and hemophilia, respectively. Bacteria that feed on oil have been designed to assist in cleaning up oil spills. The applications are endless.
Berg understood the darker side of this technology too. He knew that it was theoretically possible to create new organisms with new pathogenic abilities which may be able to infect humans with new diseases. These diseases could be potentially deadly since the body would not have a chance to build up any immunity against them. In 1975, Berg and others working in recombinant DNA technology recommended a set of regulations, known as the "Berg Letter" to prevent such problems. These research guidelines are still in place today, although some rules have been relaxed as control over such experimentation has increased.
Dr. Berg's interest in science began early. He graduated from Pennsylvania State University in 1948 and obtained his doctorate from Case Western Reserve University in 1952. He spent several years as a research fellow at the Institute of Cytophysiology in Denmark and later at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. He was eventually promoted to chairman of the microbiology department at Washington University. By 1959, Berg moved west to Stanford University where he served as professor of biochemistry. In February of 1975 he helped organize the Asilomar Conference, an international forum on advances in DNA technology. Paul Berg has earned many prestigious awards and honors, including election into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences. Perhaps the highlight of his career came in 1980 when he shared the Nobel Prize in chemistry with Walter Gilbert and Frederick Sanger for his work with DNA.
Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum. About Biotech. 1992. "Winding Your Way through DNA Symposium." Available from http://www.accessexcellence.org/AB/CC/bergpres.html .