Erwin Neher Biography (1944-)


Erwin Neher was born in Landsberg, Germany, in 1944, the son of Franz XavierNeher and Elisabeth Pfeiffer Neher. In 1967, he earned his master's degree from the University of Wisconsin under a Fulbright scholarship. He then went onto complete his doctorate at the Institute of Technology in Munich, Germany,in 1970.

While the existence of ion channels that transmit electrical charges was hypothesized as early as the 1950s, no one had been able to see these channels. As a doctoral student, Neher was drawn to the question 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. He realized that in order to get answers to these questions he would have to lookfor the ion channels.

It was in his doctoral thesis that Neher first developed the concept of the patch clamp technique as a way of discovering the ion channels. In 1974 he shared a laboratory space with Bert Sakmann at the Max Planck Institute in Göttingen. They both agreed that understanding the nature of ion channels wasthe most important problem in the biophysics of the cell membrane, and theyset out to develop the techniques of patch clamping.

In 1976 Neher and Sakmann published their landmark paper on the use of glassrecording electrodes with microscopic tips, called micropipettes, pressed against a cell membrane. With these devices, which they called patch clamp electrodes, they were able to electrically isolate a tiny patch of the cell membrane and to study the protein s in that area. They could then see how the individual proteins acted as channels or gates for specific ions, allowing certainions to pass through the cell membrane one at a time, while preventing others from entering. Their work with patch clamps allowed them to remove a patchof the membrane and to enter the interior of the cell. They then were able toconduct various experiments to observe the intricate mechanism of ion channels. Several years later, Neher, Sakmann, and their colleagues refined the technique of patch clamping. Creating a better seal between the micropipette andthe patch of cell membrane it pressed against was one of the refinements they sought. Without a tight seal there was interference by "noise" that overshadowed the smaller electrical currents.

Neher solved the problem of outside noise interference in 1980 when he was able to observe on his oscilloscope a marked drop in the noise level to almostzero. From this drop he was able to infer that he had produced a seal that was one hundred times better than previously attained. While other researchershad noticed an abatement of noise at times, Neher was the first to realize the significance of the drop in noise level.

Neher found that by using a light suction with a super clean pipette, he could create a high-resistance seal of 10-100 gigohms (a gigohm is a measure of electrical resistance equal to one billion ohms). He called this seal a "gigaseal." With the gigaseal, background noise could be decreased, and a number ofnew ways could be used to control cells for patch clamp experimentation. Patches from the cell could now be torn away from the membrane to act as a membrane coating over the mouth of the pipette, thus allowing for more exact measurement of electrical ion movement. A strong suction could force the pipette into the cell while still maintaining a tight seal for the cell as a whole.

In 1976 Neher returned to the Max Planck Institute in Göttingen. In 1978, he married microbiologist Eva-Maria Ruhr; they have five children. He became director of the membrane biophysics department at the Max Planck Institutein 1983, and in 1987 he was made an honorary professor.

In 1991 Neher and Sakmann won the Nobel Prize for proving the existence of ion channels. The Nobel Committee also praised the work of Neher and Sakmann for helping in research on heart disease, epilepsy, and disorders affecting thenervous and muscle systems. Patch clamp research has helped in the development of new drugs for these conditions.

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