Rockefeller University logo The Structure of Potassium Ion Channels

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This image shows a "skeletal"
view of the potassium ion
channel, with the three
potassium ions in the channel
at any given time in red.

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 his work.

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.


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