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Paul Berg, Slicer of Genes, is Penn State’s Only Nobel Prize Winning Alumnus

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Penn State has produced more than its fair share of distinguished alumni, spanning the gamut of fields. Accomplished athletes, renowned professors, scientists, politicians, and businesspersons alike have begun their respective paths of higher education in Happy Valley.

Only one of those former students has won the prestigious Nobel Prize. Let me introduce you to renowned scientist and Penn State alumnus Paul Berg, now 87.

In 1980, Berg, considered the “father of genetic engineering,” won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry with two other professors after his construction of the first recombinant-DNA molecule: a key link between the chemical composition of DNA and the biological makeup of an organism.

Berg, born in Brooklyn in 1926, knew he had a passion for science by the time he reached junior high school. As he wrote in his brief autobiography for the Nobel Prize foundation, “I realize that nurturing curiosity and the instinct to seek solutions are perhaps the most important contributions education can make. With time, many of the facts I learned were forgotten but I never lost the excitement of discovery.”

He graduated high school in 1943, a year after Pearl Harbor. Berg elected to stay close to home and enrolled at New York’s City College to pursue chemical engineering. But despite his passion for biological systems, Berg felt it necessary to join the war effort. He enrolled in the Navy and began studying at Penn State while waiting for his training to begin.

Berg with his fiancee Mildred Levy, whom he met working a summer job in high school.

Berg with his fiancee Mildred Levy, whom he met working a summer job in high school. Image courtesy of Paul Berg to the National Library of Medicine’s Profiles in Science

“After a year at Penn State and six months training at sea I served on a submarine chaser through the end of the war,” he wrote. “I returned to the university in the fall of 1946 and completed my undergraduate degree in biochemistry two years later.”

Berg was a member of the Beta Sigma Rho (now Beta Sigma Beta) fraternity at Penn State.

Initially, Berg planned to follow many of his peers in lucrative careers in the pharmaceutical industry. However, during his final year at Penn State, he became engaged in the study of examining radioactive isotopes in metabolic reactions, a new technique for the period. A set of papers from Western Reserve University on the topic interested Berg.

“That seemed exciting and although I had never heard of Western Reserve University it was my next destination,” he wrote.

At Western Reserve (now Case Western), Berg pursued a PhD with professor Harland Wood, an industry leader in radioactive isotopic studies. Berg’s doctoral thesis “was among the first to demonstrate, in vitro, that folic acid and vitamin B12 cofactors participated” led to the conversion of certain acids and methanol into fully reduced methyl groups.

His research was a hit and made the young graduate student a relative star in the academic world. It was at that point that Berg knew he wished to pursue a research-driven career in academia, not one of financial prominence in the pharmaceutical sector.

After a year in Copenhagen transitioning from a classical biochemist into a molecular one and six more in St. Louis, Berg moved to Stanford University’s Medical Center in 1959. With biochemist Arthur Kornberg (who he met in St. Louis and who would also win a Nobel Prize), he began studying Polyoma and SV40 tumor viruses in cell cultures.

The science is far from intuitive, as most award-winning research seems to be: “I conceived of using SV40 as a means for introducing new genes into mammalian cells much in the way that bacteriophage transduce cellular DNA among infected cells,” wrote Berg.

He and his colleagues developed a method to join two DNAs together in vitro, effectively slicing them and putting the two strands back together again. “In this case,” Berg explained, “a set of three genes responsible for metabolizing galactose in the bacterium E. coli was inserted into the SV40 DNA genome.”

The findings ultimately led to tools necessary to analyze mammalian gene composition and function, for which Berg and his peers won the Nobel Prize.

Berg’s legacy lives on at Penn State: the Paul Berg Prize in molecular biology is awarded annually to an Eberly graduate student for superb research in one’s first or second year of graduate work.

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