Paul Berg, Nobel Prize winner in chemistry and emeritus professor in Stanford’s biochemistry department, passed away on Feb. 15 at his home on the University’s campus. He was 96.
According to those who knew Berg, he was both an amazing teacher and scientist. He served as the Robert W. and Vivian K. Cahill professor of cancer research emeritus. Berg, born to Jewish Russian immigrant parents, is survived by his son John Berg.
Berg researched genetic engineering and is most well known for his work combining DNA from two different species, which scientists questioned the feasibility of at the time. In 1972, Berg published a paper that showed that combining DNA was, in fact, possible. Berg had mixed DNA from E. Coli bacteria and the virus SV 40, a discovery that would later lead to him sharing the Nobel Prize in 1980 with genetic scientists Walter Gilbert and Frederick Sanger.
“He’s the first person to show that you could clone DNA and you could swap one piece of DNA and insert it into another piece of DNA,” medicine professor PJ Utz M.D. ’91 said. “And so that’s formed the basis for modern medicine.”
Berg’s discovery was not without controversy, however, and opened the door to numerous ethical quandaries, voiced by some scientists. Concerns included the possibility of a new lethal virus or environmental catastrophe.
Berg, too, was worried about the potential problems his discovery could lead to. In 1974, he signed a letter with 10 colleagues calling for the international science community to come together to address the ethical questions and problems present in the new technique of recombinant DNA. What resulted was a gathering of hundreds of scientists in 1975 at the Asilomar Conference Center in Pacific Grove, California. These scientists created a set of guidelines for how others should engage with such genetic engineering, which were later adopted by the National Institutes of Health and other organizations.
Despite the ethical questions produced by recombinant DNA, Berg’s research set the groundwork for scientific advancements in multiple areas of medicine.
Brian Kobilka, 2012 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry and a physiology professor at Stanford, credits Berg’s work for the research he conducts in his own lab. “I definitely benefited from being able to manipulate DNA for practical purposes,” Kobilka said.
He is not alone. Utz, who works as an immunologist and rheumatologist, still uses the techniques Berg invented when doing his own research.
“All the work my lab has done really hinges on his initial discoveries,” Utz said. “It’s the same for anyone who’s practicing medicine now. If you write an order for insulin for a diabetic patient, that insulin is coming from a recombinant source and that only could have been possible through the work that Paul did.”
Berg came to Stanford in 1959 after working as a professor at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. He arrived at Stanford when the medical school was undergoing major changes, such as moving the campus from downtown San Francisco to Palo Alto. Berg was one of the key faculty members who helped make this move successful.
“He had helped in virtually every capacity to bring the school to a unique place as a research-intensive medical school that was also committed to training future leaders in medicine and science,” said Phil Pizzo, former dean of the Stanford School of Medicine.
In addition to helping create a successful medical school move, Berg was also instrumental in establishing numerous academic programs and initiatives at the University. Along with colleague and future Nobel laureate Arthur Kornberg, Berg helped establish the biochemistry department at Stanford.
Suzanne Pfeffer, a professor in the biochemistry department, arrived at Stanford in 1986. When Pfeffer first met Berg, he was raising money to start a new center called the Beckman Center for Molecular and Genetic Medicine, which also led to the start of the Department of Developmental Biology and the Department of Molecular and Cellular Physiology.
“The entire time I’ve known him, he has been so dedicated to Stanford,” Pfeffer said. “Not just founding this whole Beckman Center, but his devotion to graduate student education, medical student education, giving all kinds of gifts to the University. I mean, he’s just been such an advocate for Stanford.”
His dedication to science extended beyond his lab and into public policy advocacy.
“What Paul did was he used the fact of being a Nobel laureate to be a voice for the importance of informing Congress about science, and working with scientists to come up with many science policies,” Pfeffer said. “Members of Congress open their doors to Nobel laureates, and he used that to help them understand science policy.”
One area where Berg leveraged his Nobel laureate status was in pushing the government to support new lines of stem cell research. For a period of time under former President George W. Bush, federal funding towards certain types of stem cell research was banned. Berg wanted to change that.
As part of his policy work, Berg became an advocate for Proposition 71 in 2004, which led to the birth of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. “He was on television educating voters about the importance of this bill,” Pfeffer said.
According to those who knew him personally, Berg’s intellectual passions and interests didn’t just lie in science.
“I am sure those who knew Dr. Berg well over the years of the pandemic and this past year in particular would also note that his mind remained incredibly sharp and full of ideas in ways that transcended his chronological age,” Pizzo said. “It was inspiring as well as humbling to be in dialogue with him.”
Utz and Pfeffer both echoed Pizzo’s statements.
“He was knowledgeable about everything. You could talk to him about history, politics, sports, travel,” Utz said.
Utz and Pfeffer both came over to Berg’s house to watch the Super Bowl with him a few days before his death. Utz had informed Berg of a medical student presentation that was to take place the following Wednesday for the Berg Scholars program, which Utz and Berg helped establish together. He asked Berg if he would be interested in attending the meeting. Initially, Berg declined, but he then changed his mind and decided he would dial in by Zoom.
“He goes, ‘You know, I think I’d rather hear from the med students what they’re up to.‘ And so we set up a Zoom call… and he didn’t respond and that was because he had passed away,” Utz said. “I found that maybe an hour later, so right up until the day he died, he was still interacting with medical students.”
This article has been updated to more accurately reflect the type of ban on stem cell research enacted by President Bush.