Bert Sakmann Biography (1942-)

physician, cell physiologist

Bert Sakmann, along with physicist Erwin Neher, was awarded the 1991 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for inventing the patch clamp technique. The technique made it possible to realize a goal that had eluded scientists since the 1950s: to be able to examine individual ion channels--pore-forming proteins found in the outer membranes of virtually all cells that serve as conduitsfor electrical signals. Introduced in 1976, the patch clamp technique openednew paths in the study of membrane physiology. Since then, researchers throughout the world have adapted and refined patch clamping, contributing significantly to research on problems in medicine and neuroscience. The Nobel Committee credited Sakmann and Neher with having revolutionized modern biology.

Sakmann was born in Stuttgart, Germany, on June 12, 1942. His later educationinvolved much time around the laboratory. From 1969 to 1970, he was a research assistant in the department of neurophysiology at the Max Planck Institutefor Psychiatry in Munich. Between 1971 and 1973, Sakmann studied biophysicswith Nobel Laureate Bernard Katz at University College in London as a BritishCouncil scholar. In 1974 he received his medical degree from the UniversityofGöttingen. From that year until 1979 he was a research associate inthedepartment of neurobiology at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the existence of ion channels that allowfor the transmission of electrical charges from one cell to another was inferred from research since no one had been able to actually locate the sites of these channels. Cell physiologists were being drawn to thequestion of how electrically charged ions control such biological functions as the transmission of nerve impulses, the contraction of muscles, vision, and the process of conception. Sakmann's early interest in ion channels was stimulated by two papers published in 1969 and 1970 that gave strong evidence for the existence of ion channels.As stronger evidence began to accumulate for their existence, it became clearto Sakmann and Neher, who were sharing laboratory space at the Max Planck Institute, that they would have to develop a fine instrument to be able to locate the actual sites of the ion channels on the cell membrane.

Bedeviling efforts of researchers to that point was the electrical "noise" generated by the cell's membrane, which made it impossible todetect signals coming from individual channels. Sakmann and Neher set about to reduce the noiseby shutting out most of the membrane. They applied a glass micropipette onemicron wide and fitted with a recording electrode to a cell membrane and wereable to measure the flow of current through a single channel. "It worked thefirst time," Sakmann recalled in Science magazine. The biophysical community was exultant.

Over the next few years, Sakmann and Neher refined their patch clamp technique. The refinements made it possible to measure even very small currents, andestablished the patch clamp as a tremendously versatile tool in the field ofcell biology. Patch clamping has been instrumental in studies of cystic fibrosis, hormone regulation, and insulin production in diabetes. The technique has also made possible the development of new drugs in the treatment of heart disease, epilepsy, and disorders affecting the nervous and muscle systems. In1991 Sakmann and Neher won the 1991 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine fortheir work on ion channels.

Sakmann has continued to work with other research teams, altering the genes for identified ion channels in order to trace the molecules in the channel responsible for opening and closing the ion pore. Even though Sakmann expressedsurprise at receiving the Noble Prize, given all the other important work going on in cell physiology, the opinion of many of his colleagues was that theaward was long overdue. Sakmann is married to Christianne, an ophthalmologist; they have three children.

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