Ullyot Public Affairs Lecture: Peter Agre

Thursday, September 30, 2021
6:00 p.m.–7:30 p.m. EDT (UTC -4)

The 2021 Ullyot Public Affairs Lecture will be held online.

The evening features Nobel laureate and medical scientist Peter Agre, who will talk about the special role of water in biology and his transition into malaria research.


Side view of aquaporin water channel

Side view of aquaporin 1 channel.

Wikimedia Commons

Agre is best known for the discovery of aquaporin water channels—the family of membrane proteins often referred to as the “plumbing system of cells.” Aquaporins are found in all living organisms. Thirteen different aquaporin genes are present in the human genome, and aquaporins have been characterized for roles in tubule water reabsorption in the kidney, generation of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain, release of sweat from skin, and secretion of tears and aqueous humor in the eye. Aquaporin malfunctions can result in dehydration, dry eye, hyperthermia, inanition, brain edema, and other serious clinical disorders. Agre now focuses his attention on combating malaria in the laboratory and in the field, where as principal investigator of the NIH-funded International Center of Excellence for Malaria Research, he oversees efforts in Zambia, Zimbabwe, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Aquaporin Water Channels: From Atomic Structure to Malaria

Aquaporin (AQP) water channel proteins confer high water permeability to many biological membranes. Discovered in human red cells but expressed in multiple tissues, AQP1 has been thoroughly characterized and its atomic structure is known. Expression patterns of the thirteen known human homologs predict clinical phenotype. Although very rare, AQP1-null humans lack Colton blood group antigens and exhibit defective urine concentration in the proximal nephron and reduced fluid permeability by lung capillaries. AQP2 is expressed in renal collecting duct principal cells, and AQP2-null individuals suffer from severe nephrogenic diabetes insipidus. Under-expression of AQP2 is common in bedwetting, and over-expression leads to fluid retention in congestive heart failure. AQP0 is present in lens fiber cells, and mutations in the gene encoding AQP0 result in childhood cataracts. AQP4 resides in astroglial endfeet of brain, and AQP4 is implicated in brain edema – a common and tragic consequence of head injury, stroke, and brain tumors. AQP5 is found in the apical membranes of salivary and lacrimal gland acini, and defective trafficking is sometimes found in dry mouth and dry eye of Sjogren’s syndrome. Conversion of glycerol to glucose during starvation requires the release of glycerol from adipocytes via AQP7 followed by uptake of glycerol into hepatocytes via AQP9 where the glycerol is converted to glucose. Plants exhibit dozens of different aquaporins which facilitate water uptake by rootlets and maintenance of stem turgor by tonoplast aquaporins. Parasitic diseases such as malaria involve aquaporins in the parasite, in the human hosts, and even in Anopheles mosquitoes where fluid release is important after taking a blood meal. Practical applications of aquaporin technology may provide new preventions of diseases and may boost agricultural production.`

About Peter Agre


Peter Agre headshot

Peter Agre.

Will Kirk/Johns Hopkins University

Peter Agre is Bloomberg Distinguished Professor and director of the Malaria Research Institute at Johns Hopkins University. His love of biomedical research began while working on cholera as a student in the laboratories at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. After his residency and a fellowship he returned to Johns Hopkins, eventually joining the School of Medicine faculty in 1984, where he rose to the rank of professor of biological chemistry and of medicine.

Agre is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine, for which he chaired the Committee on Human Rights. From 2009 to 2011 Agre served as president and chair of the board of advisors of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He was also elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society.

In addition to winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2003 for the discovery of aquaporin water channels, Agre received the 1999 Homer Smith Award from the American Society of Nephrology and the 2005 Karl Landsteiner Award from the American Association of Blood Banks. He has 16 honorary doctorates from universities around the world.

Agre received a BA in chemistry from Augsburg College in Minneapolis and an MD from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. He completed his residency at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and an oncology fellowship at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

About the Ullyot Public Affairs Lecture

Endowed in 1990 by chemist Glenn Edgar Ullyot, this annual award and lecture seeks to illustrate how chemistry, biology, and the sciences in general contribute to the public welfare.

The Ullyot Public Affairs Lecture is presented jointly by the Science History Institute (where it has been held since 1997), the Department of Chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania, the Department of History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania, the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of the Sciences, and the Philadelphia Section and Delaware Section of the American Chemical Society.