About Peter Agre, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 2003
Peter Agre (pronounced "ahg-ray") (born January 30, 1949) is an American medical doctor, professor, and molecular biologist who was awarded the 2003 Nobel Prize in Chemistry (which he shared with Roderick MacKinnon) for his discovery of aquaporins. Aquaporins are water-channel proteins that move water molecules through the cell membrane. In February 2009, Peter Agre was inducted as the 163rd president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the nation's largest scientific organization.
Agre was born in Northfield, Minnesota to a Norwegian American father and a mother of Swedish and Norwegian descent. He received his B.A. from Augsburg College in Minneapolis, Minnesota and his M.D. in 1974 from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland. From 1975 to 1978 he completed his clinical training in Internal Medicine at Case Western Reserve University's Case Medical Center under Charles C.J. Carpenter. He served as the Vice Chancellor for science and technology at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, NC, where he guided the development of Duke's biomedical research. Agre leads the Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute (JHMRI). Agre became director at JHMRI and joined the faculty of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health on January 1, 2008. He was elected to membership in the National Academy of Sciences in 2000 and to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2003. He is also a founding member of Scientists and Engineers for America (SEA).
Agre is an Eagle Scout and recipient of the Distinguished Eagle Scout Award (DESA). Two of his brothers are also physicians, and they and his son Clarke are also Eagle Scouts.
Agre also enjoys cross-country skiing and has participated in the Vasaloppet ski race.
Agre is known among science students for his humanity and humility. One of the reasons he gives for this is the grade of "D" Agre received in his first chemistry class, despite having a father who was a chemistry professor. He also notes that his prize-winning research was originally an investigation of the molecular identity of the human blood Rh factor, and his initial discovery of aquaporins was purely serendipitous. He appeared on The Colbert Report, discussing SEA, sound science in politics, and the decline of American knowledge of science, among other topics.
Aquaporins are "the plumbing system for cells," said Agre. Every cell is primarily water. "But the water doesn’t just sit in the cell, it moves through it in a very organized way. The process occurs rapidly in tissues that have these aquaporins or water channels."
For 100 years, scientists assumed that water leaked through the cell membrane, and some water does. "But the very rapid movement of water through some cells was not explained by this theory," said Agre.
Agre said he discovered aquaporins "by serendipity." His lab had an N.I.H. grant to study the Rh blood group antigen. They isolated the Rh molecule but a second molecule, 28 kilodaltons in size (and therefore called 28K) kept appearing. At first they thought it was a piece of the Rh molecule, or a contaminant, but it turned out to be an undiscovered molecule with unknown function. It was abundant in red blood cells and kidney tubes, and related to proteins of diverse origins, like the brains of fruit flies, bacteria, the lenses of eyes, and plant tissues.
Agre asked John Parker, his hematology professor at the University of North Carolina. Parker said, “Boy, this thing is found in red cells, kidney tubes, plant tissues; have you considered it might be the long-sought water channel?” So Agre said that he followed up Parker's suggestion. If aquaporin could be manipulated, it could potentially solve medical problems such as fluid retention in heart disease and brain edema after stroke.
Agre defended Thomas C. Butler, a plague researcher from Texas Tech University who voluntarily reported to the university safety office that 30 vials of plague bacteria were missing and had probably been autoclaved. Butler cooperated with FBI agents, who accused him of lying and arrested him. When Butler refused to plead guilty, federal prosecutors charged him with other charges, some of them unrelated, and he was convicted in a jury trial, lost his medical license, and served 2 years in prison.
In addition to being a founding member of Scientists and Engineers for Change, Agre was one of 48 Nobel laureates who signed a letter endorsing Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry for president.
Agre criticized many policies of the Bush Administration. "The Bush administration has been a disaster for the environment. They're playing Russian roulette by not signing the Kyoto Accord. If we wait until there's unequivocal proof that this is the cause of global climate change, it will be too late," he said.
2008 Senate race
Agre would emphasize health care and environmental issues rather than the Iraq war. He said, "The issues that were important to us at the millennium are still important today." He also feels that the US Senate could benefit from the perspective of a medical scientist. Then on August 29 he announced that he would not enter the race for the Senate seat, calculating his chances of success with a late start to obtain the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party endorsement against the huge personal cost and the termination of his federally-funded scientific research program and humanitarian service. An advocate for increased representation of science in government, he would not rule out the possibility of seeking public office in the future.
On 31 August 2007, an editorial article written by Agre appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. In it, he formally withdrew himself from consideration for the US Senate race of 2008, and presented a historical review of select Minnesotans who contributed to human advancement, science and medicine. He excluded his own seminal contribution to the understanding of how water moves across our cells—something scientists had debated for a century.
Agre issued a call for a "...new century of science". In this editorial he highlighted the paucity of scientists in Congress. He also contemplated the fact that both Germany and China have leaders who are trained research scientists (Germany: Angela Merkel, Ph.D., Physical Chemistry; China: Hu Jintao, Hydraulic Engineer).
There has never been a Nobel Science Prize winner in the U.S. Senate. Nor has there ever been a Nobel Prize winner elected Governor in the United States.