- The Washington Times - Friday, October 10, 2003

Nobles: Drs. Peter Agre and Roderick MacKinnon, for Nobel Prize-winning research.

While loath to laud a leaker (see last week’s Nobles), we praise this year’s joint winners of the Nobel Prize in chemistry for their work on pores, particularly since one is from Johns Hopkins.

Dr. Agre, a professor at Hopkins, discovered and determined the structure of aquaporins, a family of proteins that allow water to pour into or out of cell membranes in a regulated way. Cells need aquaporins to maintain the right balance of fluids. Too much water and they burst, too little and they shrivel.

While Dr. Agre claimed that luck had a great deal to do with his discovery of aquaporins, his determined curiosity played an even more critical role. He first found the proteins in blood cells. While they were extremely abundant, no one had any idea of their function. Then, Dr. Agre discovered them in plant roots and kidney cells. After having a hunch that they were water channels, he conducted several experiments that proved they actually were.

Dr. MacKinnon, a professor at New York City’s Rockefeller University, also demonstrated a great deal of determination. The physician by training had to learn complex physics in order to determine the exact shape of the particular channel in cell membranes that allows only charged potassium atoms (called ions) through. Cells use potassium ions for signaling and energy generation. However, the channels through which they flow are extraordinarily selective, and scientists found it extremely difficult to determine their exact shape.

Dr. MacKinnon had little help in his attempts to divine the structure of the channel since, “Most people thought this was too far out in the future.” However, he persisted, teaching himself the arcana of X-ray crystallography in order to assemble an exact picture of the channel.

The discoveries of this duo have great therapeutic potential, since malfunctioning channels play a role in many diseases, including epilepsy and cystic fibrosis. However, there will probably be no need to prick the ego of either prize winner. After all, Dr. Agre earned a “D” in high school chemistry.

Knaves: Sen. Joseph Lieberman, for putting pandering over principle.

On other occasions, Mr. Lieberman could be the Noble of the week. After all, he is usually a principled man who, as he said in the Democratic candidates’ debate last Thursday night, has supported the war in Iraq “clearly and consistently.”

However, later in the debate, Mr. Lieberman promised to “support any one of these eight others that get nominated by my party to run against George Bush.” Presumably that would include near-pacifist Dennis Kucinich. However, Messrs. Kucinich and Lieberman are at antipodes on Iraq. During the same debate, Mr. Kucinich proclaimed he was “the only person on this stage who actually voted against the war in Iraq.”

If Mr. Lieberman is to be taken at his word, he will back Mr. Kucinich in the unlikely event he earns the nomination. To do so, he would have to abandon the hawkish stance that led him to say to “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” host Margaret Warner last Feb. 26, “There is no case to be made for unlimited extensions of the inspection regimen against Iraq … Unless there’s some evidence that [Saddam Hussein] really responded …. I’m afraid we are going to have to go to war.”

Yet, one true test for presidential trust is sticking by the unpopular side of an issue when one is convinced it is right — as James Russell Lowell put it in his poem, “The Present Crisis,” “To side with truth is noble when we share her wretched crust.”

Mr. Lieberman has shown nobility in the past, and it’s a pity he chose to act so ignobly during the debate. For his unprincipled pandering, he’s the knave of the week.

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