Walker walks off with oldest existing scientific prize

John Fox – News Reporter 16 July 2012

Seldom would any deny the likelihood of a Cambridge Professor mounting the pedestal of his or her disciplinary acme. And on Tuesday, former 1997 joint Nobel Prize Winner in Chemistry, our own Sir John Walker, was announced the recipient of the Copley Medal for scientific breakthroughs in biochemical research by the Royal Society, London.

Professor Walker, Director of Medical Research Council Mitochondrial Biological Unit in Cambridge, now finds himself contradistinguished further from a 1500-strong Royal Society – founded in 1660 – by acquiring its most prestigious award.

Expressing his delight, Walker admitted: “I am greatly honoured by the award of such a prestigious prize. An accolade from fellow scientists is especially to be treasured.”

First awarded in 1731 to Stephen Gray, an amateur astronomer and dyer, for his electrical experiments, the Copley Medal’s awarding to Professor Walker places him squarely amongst an historically recognised milieu of former winners, including Stephen Hawking and Charles Darwin.

With Professor Walker manning the helm of his research unit, the award has arrived timely on the cusp of momentous steps towards deepening cellular respiratory understanding. It was ATP synthase, an enzyme by which ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate) is generated after undergoing a complex chemical reaction with both Adenosine Diphosphate and inorganic phosphate in cellular mitochondria, which formed Professor Walker’s research focus.

Sir Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society since 2010, lent a panegyric note to Professor Walker’s accomplishment: “Without his contributions to our knowledge of the process by which nutrition is transformed into energy many subsequent discoveries would not have been made.”

This metabolic process in aerobic cellular respiration is comprised of three stages. The Kreb’s Cycle and the Electron Transport Chain, producing most energy, occur within mitochondria, the so called ‘power-plants’ of bodily cells.  That Walker’s work sought out the activity of ATP synthase now seen as vital to energy generation in the mitochondria, so too the scientific world snatches a real glimpse of how our bodies manufacture their fuel.

The Royal Society President was further keen to alight on the scientific significance of Professor Walker’s work, commenting that, “John’s work on ATP synthase has been absolutely fundamental to our understanding of what powers living cells and thereby all life. He is a role model to all scientists working in this area.”

Professor Walker is due to receive the Copley Medal in November later this year.

John Fox – News Reporter