Professor John Walker shared his Nobel Prize in 1997 with the American chemist Paul D. Boyer for their "elucidation of the enzymatic mechanism underlying the synthesis of adenosine triphosphate". They also shared the prize with Danish chemist Jens C. Skou for research unrelated to theirs (Discovery of the Na+/K+-ATPase), Skou died earlier this year at the age of 99. Sir John Walker is Emeritus Director and Professor at the MRC Mitochondrial Biology Unit in Cambridge, and a Fellow of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge.
The lecture will be devoted to the topic of how the biological world supplies itself with energy to make biology work, and what medical consequences ensue when the energy supply chain in our bodies is damaged or defective. We derive our energy from sunlight, which, via photosynthesis in green plants, provides high energy components in the foods that we ingest. We harvest that energy, effectively by “burning” (oxidising) the high energy components, releasing cellular energy in a controlled way to generate the fuel of life, in the form of the molecule known as adenosine triphosphate (or ATP for short).
The key steps in this process take place in the mitochondria inside the cells that make up our tissues. They serve as biological “power stations” that contain millions of tiny molecular turbines, the ATP synthase, that rotate rather like man-made turbines churning out the cellular fuel in massive quantities, which is then delivered to all parts of our bodies to provide the energy to make them function. Each of us makes and expends about 60 kg of this fuel every day of our lives. Defects in the fuel supply process are increasingly being recognized as important components of complex human diseases such as cancer, neurodegeneration and neuromuscular diseases, and they may also be part of the process of ageing.