The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2003
Born: 19 February 1956, Burlington, MA, USA
Affiliation at the time of the award: Rockefeller University, New York, NY, USA; Howard Hughes Medical Institute, USA
Prize motivation: “for structural and mechanistic studies of ion channels”
Prize share: 1/2
Roderick MacKinnon was born in Burlington, Massachusetts. As an adult, he studied not far from Massachusetts' capital, Boston. He first studied biochemistry at Brandeis University and then earned a medical degree from Tufts University in 1982. After a few years working as a doctor, MacKinnon returned to Brandeis University as a researcher at age 30. He later moved to Harvard University in 1989 and then to Rockefeller University, New York, in 1996, where he conducted the research that led to his Nobel Prize. MacKinnon is married to Alice Lee, an organic chemist.
One of life's most fundamental processes is the transportation of charged atoms (ions) through the outer walls of the cells that make up living organisms. Known as ion channels, these pathways are vitally important to signal transfers in nerves and muscles, although just how they are constructed long remained a mystery. In 1998, using x-ray crystallography (that is, mapping molecule structures using the diffraction patterns that occur when x-rays pass through crystals), Roderick MacKinnon succeeded in demonstrating what a potassium ion channel looks like.