Nobel Electricity

October 14, 1991

At the molecular level, electricity governs so much of the interaction that drives the life force of organisms. Photosynthesis, by which green plants use sunlight to make food; vision, which tells an animal what to eat, run from or mate with; or the explosive bursts of energy that move a predator to the dinner table. Even thought itself.

Until recently, little was known about the electrical interactions of cells. Two German scientists, Erwin Neher, 47, and Bert Sakmann, 49, began two decades ago to perfect their "patch clamp" technique, which can detect currents crossing a cell's outer membrane that are so small they must be measured in trillionths of an ampere.

Cellular processes are electrochemical, not purely electrical. To measure such currents there must be a way to detect the passage of charged particles called ions. Dr Neher, director the Max Planck Institute's membrane physiology department in Goettingen, and Dr. Sakmann, a cell physiologist at the institute's Heidelberg laboratory, teamed up to decipher the intracacies of cell communication.

That work revealed "ion channels," microscopic molecules that pass the ions through the membrane. It has helped scientists understand the complex changes that begin with fertilization of an egg cell; the transmission of nerve impulses; the breakdown on cell function that heralds diseases like cystic fibrosis, diabetes and heart disease.

Such basic research, which in turn helps so many other researchers working on disparate problems, justly earned the two scientists the Nobel Prize for Medicine. Theirs is a discovery that will cause many other discoveries to be made, helping to improve the lives of people all over the world as it moves humanity measurably forward in the search for knowledge. For a scientist long used to working far outside the spotlight of mass acclaim, it can be overwhelming hearing the sudden rush of cheering that accompanies the Nobel. For the work these two have accomplished, the cheering is clearly proper.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.