Howard Berg, Herchel Smith Professor of Physics and Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology, is a recipient of the 2014 Raymond and Beverly Sackler International Prize in Biophysics for his pioneering contributions to understanding the physical mechanisms of bacterial motion and chemotaxis—movement in response to chemical stimuli.
Each year the Raymond and Beverly Sackler International Prize in Biophysics recognizes researchers’ “dedication to science, originality and excellence.” Administered by Tel Aviv University, the $100,000 prize will be shared by Berg and another recipient—Mathematical Biologist George Oster of the University of California at Berkeley. Previous recipients include David Baker, Jonathan Weissman, Steve Quake, and Xiaowei Zhuang among others. “It’s nice when one’s efforts are appreciated by one’s peers,” said Berg. “I am very happy to receive the Sackler Prize.”
Today, Berg’s lab studies the mechanisms of bacterial movement and how those movements are influenced by environmental factors on a molecular level. Their aim is to understand how bacteria sense changes in their environment, analyze sensory data, and purposefully respond to those changes through propulsion, twitching, swarming, or gliding. “My work on bacterial motility and chemotaxis is curiosity driven,” said Berg. “Imagine a creature one micron in size that can cruise around at 30-diameters per second, driven by variable pitch propellers powered by reversible rotary motors, that can decide, as it moves along, whether life is getting better or worse?! The joy is understanding how all this works.”
Berg received his doctorate from Harvard University in 1964, where he was also a National Scholar and NIH Fellow. He joined Harvard University in the late 1960s as an assistant professor of biology and molecular biology, before moving on to other opportunities at the University of Wisconsin, University of Colorado, California Institute of Technology, and Cold Spring Harbor. Berg returned to Harvard in 1986 as a professor of molecular and cellular biology at the Rowland Institute for Science. In 1997, he also became a professor of physics, and in 2003 was named the Herchel Smith Professor of Physics. He currently teaches courses in biophysics and bacterial motile behavior.
Read more about Howard Berg’s thoughts on his life in science in Current Biology Q & A; Volume 15, Issue 6 (March 29, 2005)