Roderick MacKinnon and Ion Channels

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Roderick MacKinnon
Courtesy of The Rockefeller University

Roderick MacKinnon, M.D., a visiting researcher at the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory, is a recipient of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Chemistry 'for structural and mechanistic studies of ion channels.' His research explains "how a class of proteins helps to generate nerve impulses – the electrical activity that underlies all movement, sensation, and perhaps even thought. The work leading to the prize was done primarily at the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source [CHESS] and the National Synchrotron Light Source [NSLS] at Brookhaven.

The proteins, called ion channels, are tiny pores that stud the surface of all of our cells. These channels allow the passage of potassium, calcium, sodium, and chloride molecules called ions. Rapid-fire opening and closing of these channels releases ions, moving electrical impulses from the brain in a wave to their destination in the body."1

"Potassium channels act as both gateways and gatekeepers on cell membranes, controlling the flow of ions and enabling brains to think, muscles to move, and hearts to beat. Malfunctioning ion channels contribute to epilepsy, arrhythmia, and other diseases."2

voltage-dependent potassium ion channel
Courtesy of Brookhaven National Laboratory

"In 1998, MacKinnon and his research team published the very first potassium channel structure, which revealed the way that positively charged potassium ions flow easily through a protein's pore spanning the cell membrane. In the five years following, the Rockefeller scientists have revealed the inner workings of sodium and potassium channels, or the why's and how's of ion movement through a cell's membrane. What this earlier research did not do, however, was explain how a fundamental feedback loop worked.

Now, with the structure of the voltage-dependent ion channel, based on research carried out at The Rockefeller University, the National Synchrotron Light Source ... at Brookhaven National Laboratory and Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source, MacKinnon's group has answered the question of how this kind of channel functions as a voltage-dependent switch, driving muscle and nerve activity in all living organisms.

The May 1 [2003] findings not only portray an elusive ion channel structurally and mechanistically – the fifth such portrayal by MacKinnon's group in as many years – but bring history full circle by showing, for the first time, the natural molecular mechanism that underlies the theory of the action potential demonstrated in a mathematical formulation by Alan Hodgkin and Andrew Huxley in 1952."3

"Roderick MacKinnon earned a B.A. in biochemistry from Brandeis University in 1978, and an M.D. from Tufts Medical School in 1982. He completed his residency at Beth Israel Hospital, Harvard University, in 1985, and a postdoctoral fellowship at Brandeis University in 1989. He then started his career as an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, eventually becoming professor in the school's Department of Neurobiology. In 1996, he joined The Rockefeller University as professor in the Laboratory of Molecular Neurobiology and Biophysics, and, in 1997, he became an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute."4

Resources with Additional Information

Additional information about Roderick MacKinnon and his work is available in journal articles and on the Web.

Journal articles about Dr. MacKinnon's research conducted at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory's (BNL) National Synchrotron Light Source (NSLS):


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