Research into Cell Gatekeepers Wins Chemistry Nobel

Listen: 'All Things Considered' reports on the Nobel Prize for chemistry.

Listen: Listen to Richard Harris' interview with chemistry Nobel Prize winner Peter Agre.

Roderick MacKinnon shares the Nobel Prize in chemistry.

Roderick MacKinnon of Rockefeller University, Howard Hughes Medical Institute shares the Nobel Prize in chemistry for research on how key materials enter or leave cells in the body. Reuters Limited hide caption

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Peter Agre of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Peter Agre of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine was named co-winner of the Nobel in chemistry. Agre discovered a molecule that's a gatekeeper for water -- it lets only water in and out of the cell. Handout hide caption

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Two American scientists share this year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry for work that helps explain how water and other substances move in and out of living cells.

Living cells couldn't exist if they didn't have the ability to accumulate material like nutrients and to control the flow of water. Peter Agre at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine wondered just how water gets into and out of cells. He discovered a molecule that's a gatekeeper for water — it lets only water in and out of the cell.

Roderick MacKinnon, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute scholar at the Rockefeller University, asked the same question about potassium and sodium. He solved a big mystery: how a molecular pore lets in big potassium ions but holds out small sodium ions. This, in turn, controls everything from brain activity to kidney function. The two will share the prestige of the Nobel prize, along with $1.3 million. Hear NPR's Richard Harris.

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