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Two AAAS Members Named Nobels in Chemistry
Johns Hopkins University Professor Peter Agre and Rockefeller University Professor Roderick MacKinnon were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry today, "for discoveries concerning channels in cell membranes," according to a release issued by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
Both scientists are members of AAAS.
Noting that, "This year's Prize illustrates how contemporary biochemistry reaches down to the atomic level in its quest to understand the fundamental processes of life," the Royal Academy press release explains that the two scientists are being recognized for discoveries relating to how salt (ions) and water are transported into and out of the cells of the body. "The discoveries have afforded us a fundamental molecular understanding of how, for example, the kidneys recover water from primary urine and how the electrical signals in our nerve cells are generated and propagated. This is of great importance for our understanding of many diseases of e.g. the kidneys, heart, muscles and nervous system."
In 1988, Agre, now 54, conducted groundbreaking research that allowed him to isolate a membrane protein, which the biochemist later realized must be the elusive water channel. Because of Agre's work, the academy notes, "Today researchers can follow in detail a water molecule on its way through the cell membrane and understand why only water, not other small molecules or ions, can pass."
MacKinnon, 47, was recognized for his studies of a class of proteins called ion channels, tiny pores that cover the surface of cells. Also an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, MacKinnon published his groundbreaking discovery of the structure of potassium channels in the AAAS journal, Science, on 3 April, 1998 ("The Structure of the Potassium Channel: Molecular Basis of K+ Conduction and Sensitivity").
"McKinnan surprised the whole research community when in 1998 he was able to determine the spatial structure of a potassium channel," according the Royal Academy statement. "Thanks to this contribution we can now 'see' ions flowing through channels that can be opened and closed by different cellular signals."
The statement notes the importance of the ion channels, particularly for their role in the functioning of the nervous system and the muscles: "What is called the action potential of nerve cells is generated when an ion channel on the surface of a nerve cell is opened by a chemical signal sent from an adjacent nerve cell, whereupon an electrical pulse is propagated along the surface of the nerve cell through the opening and closing of further ion channels in the course of a few milliseconds."
7 October 2003