The Enzyme That Pumps You Up


is the 81st birthday of Jens Christian Skou, a Danish biophysicist who discovered the enzyme that acts as a sodium-potassium pump in every animal cell.

When a neuron fires, sodium ions stream into the cell. Afterwards, sodium ions are transported back across the cell membrane. In 1957, Skou proposed that an enzyme was the engine behind this transport. By studying nerve cells in crabs, he discovered the enzyme, called Na±K+ATPase, in 1959. Bound to the cell membrane, Na±K+ATPase uses the energy of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) molecules to pump sodium out of the cell and potassium into the cell, maintaining a charge gradient that allows ions to flow through open channels.

Similar ATPase enzymes were subsequently discovered, including the ion pump that controls muscle contraction. For his discovery, Skou received half of the 1997 Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Skou is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Aarhus in Denmark.

[Source: Britannica Online, Nobel Prize Internet Archive]