Prof Peter Agre is a molecular biologist, director of the Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, Maryland, USA. During his studies, he discovered that there is a special protein that is responsible for rapid permeation of water in cells
When did you choose to do research?
Somewhere is I think, research choose me. I was a student in medicine at Johns Hopkins back in the 1979th hoping to do some research relevant to the diseases of the third world. I was involved because of the humanitarian interest. I guess there was a threshold I must have past were I became a scientist. It was not a one way street that I entered, it was science from here on.
How did you discover aquaporins?
Being from a large family I'm used to talking with people, sharing information, getting ideas, and I talked to scientists, I talked to dozens of scientists, explained them we had a new protein, explained them we thought it was a channel protein from the red cell membranes, and we always got the same response: 'Blood cells don't have channels. You must be wrong.
So I finally talked to a colleague, John Parker of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a very dear friend, a haematologist, a blood cell specialist who was also a physiologist, and he immediately recognized - red cells, neurotubules, roots of plants - these tissues have one shared property - they are highly permeable by water, maybe this is the long thought water channel."
How did you come up with the name?
"It was before our first public lecture my postdoctoral fellow Greg Preston, wonderful fellow, charming young man, we were all having lunch, but he had to give the lecture so he was the only one not to have beer, so we were thinking - we need a name, a functional name for these water channel proteins and there were six of us, or seven of us at lunch and no one remembers exactly were the name came - but we were thinking of names like maybe hydropuntan, or hydroforin, someone else thought aqua-, aquaforin, or the Greek aquaporin, that's it! - everybody said: 'that's it! Aquaporin'."
Where do you see the great potential of aquaporins?
"The generation of pure water is theoretical possible with the aquaporins because this is a water selective filter, only water can go through this filter. The engineering of this will have some technical difficulties because the native membranes are very tiny and so only nano-water purification can occur."
What did you feel as you realized you made a breakthrough discovery?
"A lot of individuals got very excited. Attention from around the world. Even a Nobel Prize. But honestly I do not see myself as Einstein-reincarnation, I see myself more as Huckleberry Finn, happy-go-lucky individual, a good team of scientists and friends, looking for adventure, and boy did we find one."
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