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Ion Channels for Communication Between and Within Cells (Nobel Lecture)

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Each living cell is surrounded by a membrane which separates the world within the cell from its exterior. In this membrane there are channels, through which the cell communicates with its surroundings. These channels consist of single molecules or complexes of molecules and have the ability to allow passage of charged atoms, that is ions. The regulation of ion channels influences the life of the cell and its functions under normal and pathological conditions. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for 1991 is awarded for the discoveries of the function of ion channels. The two German cell physiologists Erwin Neher and Bert Sakmann have together developed a technique that allows the registration of the incredibly small electrical currents (amounting to a picoampere - 10-¹2A) that passes through a single ion channel. The technique is unique in that it records how a single channel molecule alters its shape and in that way controls the flow of current within a time frame of a few millionths of a second. Neher and Sakmann conclusively established with their technique that ion channels do exist and how they function. They have demonstrated what happens during the opening or closure of an ion channel with a diameter corresponding to that of a single sodium or chloride ion. Several ion channels are regulated by a receptor localized to one part of the channel molecule which upon activation alters its shape. Neher and Sakmann have shown which parts of the molecule that constitute the "sensor" and the interior wall of the channel. They also showed how the channel regulates the passage of positively or negatively charged ions. This new knowledge and this new analytical tool has during the past ten years revolutionized modern biology, facilitated research, and contributed to the understanding of the cellular mechanisms underlying several diseases, including diabetes and cystic fibrosis.

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