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Medal for great science

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The Royal Society has awarded this year’s Copley Medal, the world’s oldest scientific prize, to Sir John Walker for his work on ATP synthase. The medal has been awarded since 1731, and previous winners include Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking.

ATP synthase is an enzyme that provides energy for cells through the synthesis of adenosine triphosphate. It sits in the inner membranes of the mitochondrion, where it uses transmembrane proton motive force (PMF) generated by the oxidation of nutrients as a source of energy for making ATP. The PMF across the mitochondrion’s inner membrane is coupled to the chemical synthesis of ATP from adenosine diphosphate and phosphate by a mechanical rotary mechanism.

During ATP synthesis the central rotor turns around 150 times every second. In order to provide energy to sustain ourselves, each person produces a quantity of ATP by this mechanism that is roughly equal to our bodyweight.

Royal Society president Sir Paul Nurse said: “John’s breakthrough work on ATP synthase has been absolutely fundamental to our understanding of what powers living cells and thereby all life. Without his contribution to our knowledge of the process by which nutrition is transformed into energy many subsequent discoveries could not have been made.”

Professor Walker shared the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1997 with the US?biochemist Paul Boyer for their work in understanding the synthesis of ATP, a landmark in molecular biology that lies at the centre of understanding cell chemistry.

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