Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
Penn State Science
You are here: Home About News Articles 2018 News Articles Erin McCarthy awarded the Paul Berg Prize in Molecular Biology

Erin McCarthy awarded the Paul Berg Prize in Molecular Biology

Main Content

April 10, 2018 – Erin, McCarthy, a graduate student in the Biochemistry, Microbiology and Molecular Biology Program, has been awarded the Paul Berg Prize in Molecular Biology.

The exceptional achievements of Paul Berg in the field of molecular biology bestow considerable prestige to this prize consisting of $1000. A certificate was presented to Erin McCarthy at the Marker Lecture in Genetic Engineering in March of 2018.

McCarthy has worked with Howard Hughes Medical Investigator Squire Booker in the Booker Laboratory since February 2014.  Dr. Booker works with enzymes which carry out biochemical reactions with astronomical rate enhancements and amazing stereoselectivities, mediating the huge quantity and variety of cellular transformations that constitute what is vaguely termed “life.” His laboratory is endeavoring to understand at the detailed molecular level the reaction mechanisms employed by various enzymes, and then to exploit what we learn to impact favorably on human health and the human condition in general. A particular focus for the lab is to understand the manner in which enzymes bind and use cofactors—whether simple metal ions, complex metal clusters, or small molecules—to increase their catalytic capabilities beyond that which is supported by the functional groups of the twenty naturally occurring amino acids. To characterize enzymes and interrogate their modes of action, Dr. Booker uses traditional biochemical and enzymological approaches in combination with structural methods such as X-ray crystallography and various forms of spectroscopy, as well as small-scale organic synthesis and fast-reaction kinetic methods. A growing interest in the lab has been to understand the mechanisms of enzymes that catalyze posttranslational modification of proteins by catalysis that proceeds through organic radical intermediates.   Particular focus has been on enzymes that use iron-sulfur clusters and/or S-adenosylmethionine in catalysis.

Erin McCarthy's 2018 Paul Berg Award Photo 2

McCarthy’s role within the lab has primarily been research of the lipoyl synthase enzyme (LipA).  This enzyme removes two hydrogen atoms from an inert carbon chain and replaces them with sulfur atoms from one of its own iron-sulfur clusters to create lipoic acid, rendering itself inactive in the process.  McCarthy’s research which appeared in the journal Science on October 20, 2017, showed that another protein, an iron-sulfur cluster carrier called NfuA, replaces the destroyed iron-sulfur cluster in LipA, allowing it to continue producing lipoic acid.  The results of her research could help scientists to understand why humans with mutations in the iron-sulfur carrier gene -- a fatal condition -- have deficiencies of lipoic acid.

Erin McCarthy's 2018 Paul Berg Award Photo 3

Where the sulfur atoms that LipA uses to produce lipoic acid come from and how they are attached has been a major point of contention in the field. How other enzymes attach oxygen atoms to inert carbon centers is fairly well understood. In those instances, oxygen, which is ubiquitously available in the atmosphere, is used to create high-energy radicals and is also the source of the appended oxygen atom. Sulfur, on the other hand, is not similarly available, but unlike most other radical SAM enzymes, LipA has an additional iron-sulfur cluster.


McCarthy remains open to the possibilities that may be available to her in the future.  She stated that she would be happy either in industry or at a research institute like Penn State.  “I am just doing the best research I can right now and will open myself up to any opportunities I have afterwards.”

Congratulations Erin on a much deserved recognition!


The Paul Berg Prize in Molecular Biology:

This award is given annually to an outstanding graduate student who has completed his or her first or second year of graduate study in the area of molecular biology.  The Berg Prize was established in 1985 through the gift of an anonymous donor to honor Nobel Laureate and Penn State Alumnus, Dr. Paul Berg.

Paul Berg is one of Penn State’s most distinguished alumni.  He earned his bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry at Penn State in 1948, after having served in the Navy during WWII, and his doctoral degree at Western Reserve University in 1952.  He was a postdoc with Arthur Kornberg at Washington University in St. Louis, and subsequently became a faculty member there.  He followed Kornberg to Stanford to help set up the new Department of Biochemistry, becoming a full professor of biochemistry at Stanford University School of Medicine in 1959 at age 33. Paul was named the director of the Beckman Center for Molecular and Genetic Medicine in 1985 and the Robert W. and Vivian Cahill Professor in Cancer Research in 1994.

Dr. Berg was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1980 “for his fundamental studies of the biochemistry of nucleic acids, particularly in regard to recombinant DNA” (shared with Gilbert and Sanger for sequencing).  Specifically, what Dr. Berg and colleagues accomplished was the synthesis of the first recombinant DNA molecule, a hybrid between the SV40 genome and a bacterial plasmid containing bacteriophage l and E. coli DNA.  Subsequently, his lab developed the first mammalian expression plasmids based on the SV40 early promoter and b-globin splice sites.

In the mid-1970s, when this research was done, the biohazards associated with recombinant DNA technology were unknown.  Dr. Berg voluntarily suspended his rDNA work and called 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 convened at the behest of the National Academy of Sciences, the famous Asilomar Conference, which took place in February of 1975.  Over one hundred leading scientists, physicians, and lawyers met at the conference to discuss the potential risks of gene-splicing experiments and propose recommendations on how to safely conduct experiments.  The ensuing dialogue resulted in the National Institutes of Health guidelines published a year later, a milestone of responsible self-regulation in science.

Dr. Berg has returned to Penn State several times.  He was named a Penn State Distinguished Alumnus in 1974 and served as an Alumni Fellow in 1976.  In addition, he has delivered a number of lectures here including the inaugural Marker Lectures in Genetic Engineering in 1990 and inaugural Eberly Family Distinguished Lecture in Science in 2002.  He has also delivered the commencement address at Penn State on two occasions, the first of which was still an all-university event held in Beaver Stadium.  Dr. Berg and his wife have also been generous supporters of Penn State, donating money for undergraduate education in life sciences as well as this building (hence, the Berg Auditorium).