Image of a cell

Paul Berg

  • National Medal of Science
  • Biological Sciences

For fundamental contributions to understanding the mechanisms of gene expression, for the development of recombinant DNA, and for a deep concern for its safe and humane application to medicine.

Paul Berg, the inventor of recombinant DNA, or genetically engineered DNA, understood that he and the scientific community were walking a fine ethical line by tinkering with nature’s building blocks. In 1972, in an effort to further study gene regulation, Berg developed a method of splicing two DNA cells together — one from a tumor virus and one from a plasmid with E. coli genes.

But the following year, another team of scientists had found an easier way. Realizing that researchers were treading dangerous waters, Berg called for a voluntary ban on recombinant DNA studies until an international conference drew up an ethical code in 1975. Those guidelines were adopted by the National Institutes of Health shortly thereafter, and Berg continued advocating for moral responsibility in genetic research.

Initially an assistant professor at Washington University in St. Louis, Berg eventually moved to Stanford and served as the inaugural director of the Beckman Center for Molecular and Genetic Medicine. In 1980, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work.

By Lauren Clason