The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1997.
"for the first discovery of an ion-transporting enzyme, Na+, K+ -ATPase"
Jens C. Skou (1918 - ) won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry his work on the Na+,K+ ATPase (sodium potassium ATPase). He discovered that this membrane protein pumped sodium ions out of cells and pumped potassium ions into cells. The pump was driven by hydrolysis of ATP.
Skou shared the Nobel Prize with Paul Boyer and John Walker who worked out the mechanism of ATP synthase—the enzyme that makes ATP.
The press release describes Skou's work in some detail.
Na+, K+-ATPase, the first molecular pump to be discovered
It was known as early as the 1920s that the ion composition within living cells is different from that in the surroundings. Within the cells the sodium concentration is lower and the potassium concentration higher than in the liquid outside. Through the work of the Englishmen Richard Keynes and Alan Hodgkin at the beginning of the 1950s (Hodgkin received the Nobel Prize in 1963) it was known that when a nerve is stimulated sodium ions pour into the nerve cell. The difference in concentration is restored by sodium being transported out once again. That this transport required ATP was probable since the transport could be inhibited in the living cell by inhibiting the formation of ATP.
With this as the starting point Jens C. Skou searched for an ATP-degrading enzyme in the nerve membrane that could be associated with ion transport. In 1957 he published the first article on an ATPase, which was activated by sodium and potassium ions (Na + , K + -ATPase). He was the first to describe an enzyme that can promote directed (vectored) transport of substances through a cell membrane, a fundamental property of all living cells. Numerous enzymes have since been demonstrated to have essentially similar functions.
Skou used as experimental material finely ground crab nerve membranes. The ATP-degrading enzyme found in the preparation required the presence of magnesium ions and was stimulated with increasing quantities of sodium ions up to a certain limit. Above this Skou was able to obtain further stimulation if he added small quantities of potassium ions. An indication that the enzyme was coupled to the ion pump was that maximal stimulation was obtained at the concentrations of sodium and potassium that normally occur in the nerve. In his further studies of the enzyme mechanism Skou showed that sodium ions and potassium ions bind with high affinity to different places in the enzyme. In addition he showed that the phosphate group separated from ATP also binds to ATPase. This is described as a phosphorylation of the enzyme. The enzyme is dependent on sodium ions when it is phosphorylated and on potassium ions when it is dephosphorylated. Substances known to inhibit sodium/potassium transport are certain digitalis alkaloids, e.g. oubain, and Skou showed that oubain interferes in the enzyme's activation by sodium.
The picture that slowly emerged from Skou's and others' work is that the enzyme consists of two subunits, alpha and beta. The first carries the enzyme's activity and the other presumably stabilises the structure. The enzyme molecules are located in the cell membrane, often in twos, and expose surfaces to the outside as well as the inside. Three sodium ions and ATP bind to the interior surface. A phosphate is then transferred from ATP to an amino acid in the enzyme, aspartic acid, whereupon the ADP is liberated and the enzyme changes form so that the sodium ions are transported to the outside. Here they are released and two potassium ions attach instead. When the phosphorus that is bound to the enzyme is removed the potassium ions are transported into the cell and when new ATP binds to the enzyme they are rejected.
As a result of the action of the Na + , K + -ATPase, the cell keeps a high concentration of potassium in its inside. As the cell membrane is rather permeable for potassium ions, a few of these potassium ions leak out, leaving unpermeable, negative charges on the inside of the cell. Therefore, the inside of the cell membrane becomes electrically negatively charged, as compared to the outside.
This difference in potential across the membrane is necessary for a nerve stimulation to propagate along a nerve fibre or a muscle cell. This is why a shortage of nourishment or oxygen in the brain rapidly leads to unconsciousness since the ATP formation ceases and the ion pump stops. The pump is also important for maintaining cell volume. If the pump stops, the cell swells. The difference in sodium concentration between the interior and the exterior is the driving force in the uptake of important nutrients necessary to the cell, e.g. glucose and amino acids. It can also be used for transport of other ions through the cell membrane. Thus sodium ions that enter can be exchanged for calcium ions that exit.
Following the discovery of Na + , K + -ATPase other ion pumps have been discovered with similar structures and functions. Examples are Ca 2+ >-ATPase in skeletal muscle, which participates in the control of muscle contraction and H + , K + -ATPase which produces hydrochloric acid in the stomach. It is the latter enzyme that is specifically inhibited in modern treatment of stomach ulcers. Corresponding enzymes are also found in lower organisms, for example in yeast where an H + -ATPase secretes hydrogen ions formed during fermentation. As a common name these enzymes are nowadays termed P-type ATPases since they are phosphorylated during the course of the reaction.
The images of the Nobel Prize medals are registered trademarks of the Nobel Foundation (© The Nobel Foundation). They are used here, with permission, for educational purposes only.