Royal Society announces winner of world's oldest science prize

10 July 2012

The Royal Society, the UK’s national academy of science, today (10 July 2012) announced that Professor Sir John Walker FRS has been awarded the Copley Medal, which is believed to be the world’s oldest scientific prize. Sir John receives the medal for his ground-breaking work in understanding what powers living cells.

The Copley medal was first awarded by the Royal Society in 1731, 170 years before the first Nobel Prize. It is awarded for outstanding achievements in scientific research and has been awarded to such eminent scientists as Charles Darwin, Michael Faraday, Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking.

Biological energy comes from the sun with light energy being harvested by photosythesis in chloroplasts and phototropic baterica. This light energy is in turn stored in carbohydrates and fat and can be released by oxidative metabolism in the form of a molecule called adenosine triphosphate (ATP) to be used as fuel for other biological processes.

This year’s Copley Medal winner, Professor Sir John Walker FRS shared the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1997 with the American biochemist Paul D. Boyer for their work in understanding the mechanism underlying the synthesis of ATP in the mitochondrion – the power generators in cells . This was a landmark in molecular biology and lies at the centre of understanding the chemistry of living cells.

Sir John’s work concentrates on an enzyme (ATP synthase) which sits in the inner membranes of the mitochondrion where it uses the transmembrane proton motive force (pmf) generated by the oxidation of nutrients as a source of energy for making ATP.The pmf across the inner membrane of the mitochondrion is coupled to the chemical synthesis of ATP from the molecule adenosine diphosphate (ADP) and phosphate by a mechanical rotary mechanism. During ATP synthesis, the central rotor turns about 150 times every second. In order to provide energy to sustain our lives, every day, each one of us produces a quantity of ATP by this mechanism that is approximately equal to our body weights.

Of his award Professor Sir John Walker FRS said:

 “I am greatly honoured by the award of such a prestigious prize. An accolade from fellow scientists is especially to be treasured.”                                                              

Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society, said:

“I am incredibly pleased that this year the Copley Medal has been awarded to John Walker. The Copley Medal is the top prize for the Royal Society and has been awarded continuously since 1731. Previous winners have included Charles Darwin, Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking. 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 contributions to our knowledge of the process by which nutrition is transformed into energy many subsequent discoveries could not have been made. He is a role model to all scientists working in this area.”

Find further information on the Royal Society’s Awards, Medals and Prize Lectures.