Place: United States of America
Subject: biography, chemistry, biology
US biochemist. He shared the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2003 with Roderick MacKinnon for the discovery of aquaporins, proteins that are responsible for allowing water molecules to pass into, but not out of, cells, while preventing the entry of other molecules.
Peter Agre was born on 30 January 1949 in Northfield, Minnesota. His father was the son of an immigrant from Norway and taught in the chemistry department at St Olaf College in Northfield. His mother was the daughter of Swedish and Norwegian immigrants. Peter Agre entered Augsburg College, Minneapolis, to study chemistry, taking his BA in 1970. He then studied at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, gaining his MD in 1974. After post-doctoral work and a fellowship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Agre returned to Johns Hopkins, where he held appointments in the departments of medicine and cell biology.
Around 1990 Agre's group was studying the composition of proteins in the membranes of red blood cells. They discovered a new type of protein, which Agre suspected was involved in the transport of water across the membrane, or outer wall, of cells.
The problem of water transport in cells went back 150 years. In the middle of the 19th century it had been conjectured that there must be one-way channels of some kind in cell walls to allow water to enter but not leave.
Agre performed a simple experiment that confirmed that the protein he had discovered could do the job of allowing water to pass through the cell wall. Placed in water, cells containing the protein swelled as water flowed in. This process is osmosis, the passage of water from one side of a semipermeable membrane to the other from a solution of weaker concentration to one of higher concentration.
Further experiments confirmed the protein's role in water transport. Agre dubbed the protein ‘aquaporin’, or ‘water pore’. Further research by Agre and others has shown that there are many aquaporins, with at least six known in the human kidney alone. They are involved in the process of removal of waste products from blood and its concentration in urine. They are also found in many animals and plants. Disturbances in the function of aquaporins result in a range of disorders, including some diseases of muscles, kidney, nerves, and heart.
From 1993 Agre was professor of biological chemistry and professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. In 2003 he shared the Nobel Prize for Chemistry with Roderick MacKinnon, who had studied the mechanisms by which ions are transported into cells. There was controversy over the award to Agre: it has been claimed that the Romanian biochemist Gheorghe Benga described essentially the same water-transporting mechanism, in work performed in 1986.
Agree has been politically active. He was one of 48 Nobel laureates who in 2004 publicly endorsed John Kerry, the unsuccessful Democratic Party candidate for the US presidency. He was a founding member of Scientists and Engineers for Change, which later became Scientists and Engineers for America, and advocates ‘respect for evidence-based debate and decision-making in politics and at all levels of government’.
In 2004 Agre began to focus his research on malaria when he was awarded a grant from the Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute (JHMRI). In 2005 he joined the Duke University Medical Center as vice-chancellor for science and technology. In 2007 he was appointed head of JHMRI, taking up his duties at the beginning of 2008.