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A cartoon drawing of a scientist looking at a DNA double helix on a purple background

Paul Berg, a Nobel laureate biochemist whose breakthrough in splicing DNA molecules helped place the foundations for the biotech industry, but who was once so concerned about possible risks from manipulating genes that he asked scientists to allow government oversight, died Feb. 15 at his home on the Stanford University campus in California. He was 96.

Stanford announced the death in a statement. No cause was given.

Dr. Berg’s question — as he and other scientists in the 1950s and ’60s learned more about the double-helix structure of DNA — was whether it was possible to transfer, from one organism to another, bits of genetic information. Success would give biologists and medical researchers an entirely new tool kit, once considered only the realm of science fiction stories about cloning.

In 1972, he gave the answer. Dr. Berg published a paper in a scientific journal that revealed he had mixed DNA from E. coli bacteria and a virus, SV40, linked to tumors in monkeys and transmissible to humans. An uproar followed.

Medical ethicists questioned whether Dr. Berg was toying with the...