The story of the sodium-potassium pump has strong ties to Denmark. In 1997, the Danish scientist Jens Chr. Skou received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery, and over the years, research on the pump has remained a strong focus area at Aarhus University. In 2007, the joint efforts of various research teams at Aarhus University led to the description of the structure of the potassium-bound state of the pump - now, Danish researchers have also described the other state of the pump; the sodium-bound state. The results were recently published in the journal Science.
The pump is pivotal to the body's function
The sodium-potassium pump is a vital enzyme found in all human cells which constantly maintains an optimal ion balance. This uses up a great deal of energy - about a fourth of the body's energy, the so-called ATP, is used to keep the pump going; in the brain the share is nearly 70%.
The sodium-potassium pump works by pumping two potassium ions into the cell and pumping out three sodium ions using the energy from an ATP molecule. This leads to a build-up of considerable differences in the concentration of the ions on the outside and inside of the cell. Differences which are essential for the communication and transport in and out of the cell of nutrients and other compounds - and for the regulation of the cell's pH and volume. If the pump does not function properly in brain cells, the result is severe neurological conditions such as migraine with aura, muscle spasms or unilateral paralysis (hemiplegia).
Knowledge of the pump is therefore crucial for our understanding of the matter and energy balance and of the disease mechanisms which come into play when the pump does not function properly. This knowledge is also important in order to develop new medicines targeting the pump.
Young interdisciplinary researchers generate knowledge
The path leading to the description of the sodium-bound state of the pump led through interdisciplinary research cooperation at Aarhus University. Sodium ions are minute and hard to detect unambiguously with a single method. But by combining a range of different methods, it was possible to piece together a complete description of the sodium-bound state of the pump.