Peter Agre was awarded the 2003 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering aquaporins, channels that allow water to travel between our body’s cells. He speaks to us about how he became interested in science, and shares his influences and inspirations – both fictitious and real.
Why did you decide to become a scientist?
“I grew up in a college town in Minnesota and my father was a professor of chemistry. Because of his involvement science, from an early age I was aware of science and how magical it was in some ways. It just seemed natural that this would be a wonderful career.”
In what ways did your father influence you?
“He would invite my brothers and me to his laboratory and we would do little experiments. They were not really experiments, they were demonstrations. But we found them magical. Take a colourless solution of water, add a drop of another colourless solution and it turns bright pink. Of course the science is understanding the magic. It was a lot of fun.”
What do you enjoy about science and your work?
“It’s constructive. The goal of science is to understand nature with the object of using this information to make things better to improve the world – to identify ways of avoiding or treating disease, understanding problems that society faces. Global climate change for example – this will be solved with policies based upon science. I think it’s a career that I feel is always pertinent to the interests of society.”
Is it important for all scientists to think about how they can impact society?
“I think it’s very important that we constantly remind ourselves that. I think collecting information to publish in text books and articles may be of interest but using that information to help others and to help ourselves is really paramount. Sometimes there’s a delay in using a discovery that will improve things but by and large I think that’s the reason science is important. Not because it’s simply of inherent interest but because it’s a practical way of improving things.”
How does water factor into your work?
“Water is part of the reason I went into science. I graduated from undergraduate college in 1970 and spent about half a year travelling in Asia before enrolling at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. This was a time when cholera was sweeping through Asia killing tens of thousands of infants and small children – cholera being a horrible diarrhoeal disease. The problem of course is the loss of water in the small bowel and so my first research project as a medical student was to work on the E. coli variant of cholera causing traveller’s diarrhoea.
Some years later we were studying red blood cells and by serendipity discovered the first molecular water channel allowing water to cross cell membranes. The problem with cholera is that a toxin stimulated the small bowel to release fluid but the explanation for how the water crossed the cell membranes was the presence of water channels.”
How did this lead to your current work with malaria?
“As a blood specialist I was always interested in possibly getting into malaria which is a major problem affecting red cells. The aquaporins [water channels] that we were studying in red cells exist in other tissues and all life forms so it became natural to look at the malaria parasite to see if it had a water channel protein and it does. In fact it was a bit of an excuse to transition from studying water channels exclusively to looking at the role in malaria.
I was then invited to become the director of the Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute. So one thing led to another. It was not some grand plan that I had outlined earlier in my life. It was more following adventures. I often refer to Huckleberry Finn as my role model.”
Why Huckleberry Finn?
“He basically was open minded and willing to follow adventures to see what’s around the next bend in the river. I think in science we shouldn’t necessarily exclude things that don’t fit with our hypotheses. Sometimes it’s the results in the laboratory that don’t fit with the hypothesis that lead to an unforeseen discovery which can even be a major discovery.”