ASBMB Past Presidents

1975 – Paul Berg

(b. 1926)



Born in New York City, Paul Berg earned a B.S. in biochemistry from Pennsylvania State University in 1948. After serving 3 years in the U.S. Navy, he returned to school, earning a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1952.He continued his postgraduate research in Copenhagen studying with Herman Kalckar at the Institute of Cytophysiology, where he and Wolfgang Joklik discovered a new enzyme that created nucleoside triphosphates for nucleic acid assembly. He then went to Washington University to study with Arthur Kornberg, where he established a new mechanism for converting fatty acids into their activated forms (acyl-CoAs). This research led to his finding that the same type of reaction was also central to the activation of amino acids as aminoacyl adenylates before being linked to tRNAs. This finding, in turn, led him to the discovery of aminoacyl tRNA synthetases. This work was featured as a Journal of Biological Chemistry Classic (1).

Eventually, Berg was promoted to associate professor of microbiology at Washington University. However, in 1959, he left St. Louis to accept the position of professor of biochemistry at Stanford University School of Medicine. At Stanford Berg and his colleagues spliced two DNA molecules together in vitro and were able to insert a set of three genes responsible for metabolizing galactose in Escherichia coli into the SV40 DNA genome. This work led to the emergence of recombinant DNA technology and provided a major tool for analyzing mammalian gene structure and function. As a result of this work, Berg shared the 1980 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Walter Gilbert and Frederick Sanger "for fundamental studies of the biochemistry of nucleic acids, with particular regard to recombinant-DNA."

Today, Berg remains at Stanford University as an emeritus professor. In addition to the Nobel Prize, he has received many honors for his research. He was awarded the American Chemical Society's Eli Lilly Prize in Biochemistry (1959), the V. D. Mattia Award of the Roche Institute of Molecular Biology (1972), the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award (1980), and the National Medal of Science (1983). Berg was president of the American Society of Biological Chemists in 1975.

1. Kresge, N., Simoni, R. D., and Hill, R. L. (2005) Amino acyl ribonucleic acid formation and recombinant DNA technology: The work of Paul Berg. J. Biol. Chem. 280 (45)