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Paul Berg (1926 - Present)

Stanley Rice

Paul Berg witnessed firsthand the history of recombinant DNA research and regulation, having been in the forefront of both movements since he was a young man. He became a professor of biochemistry at Stanford University School of Medicine in 1959, when he was 33. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences before he was 40, and he gained early recognition and influence when he delineated the key steps in which DNA produces proteins. Berg was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1980 for his work with DNA.

In the mid-1970s, the National Academy of Sciences asked Berg to explore the safety of recombinant DNA technology. He responded with the historic "Berg letter," calling for a moratorium on recombinant DNA research until safety issues could be addressed. He was one of the key organizers of the international forum on recombinant DNA technology, the Asilomar Conference, which took place in February of 1975. One hundred leading scientists met at the conference to discuss the potential risks of gene-splicing experiments. The ensuing dialogue resulted in the National Institutes of Health guidelines published a year later, a milestone of responsible self-regulation in science.

Berg's laboratory continued to work with recombinant DNA techniques throughout the 1980s. In 1985, Berg became director of the New Beckman Center for Molecular and Genetic Medicine. In 1991, Berg was named head of the NIH's influential Human Genome Project Scientific Advisory Committee.


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