The transfer of potassium ions across cell membranes has long been
understood as an essential activity for many life-sustaining functions.
But until Roderick MacKinnon captured a three-dimensional image
of the structure of a potassium ion channel protein, it was not
very well understood how the process actually worked.
MacKinnon was named a recipient of the 1999 Albert Lasker Basic
Medical Research Award for this groundbreaking accomplishment on
Sept. 25, 1999.
MacKinnon, a professor in the Laboratory of Molecular Neurobiology
and Biophysics at The Rockefeller University and an investigator
with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, modestly calls his research
"as basic as it gets," but other scientists have praised
A picture of the structure was on the cover of the April 3, 1998
issue of Science, and MacKinnon's accomplishment was hailed
by a reviewer in the magazine as "a dream come true for biophysicists."
MacKinnon calls the design of the potassium ion channel protein
"elegant in its simplicity." The balance of electric forces and
chemical bonds inside the protein not only send potassium ions through
the channel rapidly but also keeps out most other ions.
His research may play an important role in the development of drugs
to deal with diseases ranging from diabetes to heart problems.