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John E. Walker

Nobel Prize in Chemistry


John E. Walker shared the 1997 Nobel Prize in chemistry with the American Paul D. Boyer of the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and Dane Jens C. Skou of Aarhus University for discoveries about ATP synthase, an enzyme responsible for making adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the universal energy carrier in living cells. Boyer and Walker were honored for research conducted independently that explained how ATP synthase works as a catalyst in cells to promote the synthesis of ATP. Skou discovered the first molecular pump in cells (protein molecules that transport ions through cell membranes).

In 1969, John Walker was awarded the D Phil degree, while becoming interested in molecular biology. After receiving his doctorate, Walker spent the next 5 years (1969-1974) away from England. From 1969 to 1971, he worked and studied at the School of Pharmacy at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and from 1971 to 1974 he held research fellowships in France (a North Atlantic Treaty Organization research fellow at Gif-sur-Yvette and an EMBO research fellow at the Pasteur Institute in Paris).

In 1974, Walker left France and returned to England to become staff scientist at the Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology at Cambridge, where he was to remain from 1974 to 1998.

In 1978, while at Cambridge, Walker decided to apply protein chemical methods to membrane proteins. Also in 1978, he began to study ATP synthase from bovine heart mitochondria and from eubacteria. These studies eventually resulted in a complete sequence analysis of the complex from several species and in the atomic resolution structure of the F catalytic domain of the enzyme from bovine mitochondria, giving new insights into how ATP is made in the biologic world. He found that, by means of energy-rich chemical bonds, the molecule ATP captures the chemical energy released from food and makes it available to cells for muscle contraction, transmission of nerve impulses, construction of cell components, and other processes. In the 1990s, Walker provided more evidence for his findings by obtaining the first high-resolution images of the crystal structure of the active part of ATP synthase.

In addition to the Nobel Prize, Walker has received many honors and awards. These include being elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1995, the H.T. Clay Gold Medal in 1959, the Johnson Foundation Prize by the University of Pennsylvania in 1994, the CIBA Medal and Prize of the Biochemical Society in 1996, and the Peter Mitchell Medal of the European Bioenergetics Congress in 1996. In 2002, Ghana issued a stamp to honor John Ernest Walker as a Nobel laureate (Scott No. 2283f).