Roderick MacKinnon attends Burlington High School. During these years, athletics overshadows his scientific passion. He considers pursuing gymnastics in college, but during his final year of high school he changes his mind.
MacKinnon’s group produces the first high-resolution 3D x-ray crystallography images showing the detail and intricate workings of the potassium channels in cell membranes. The atomic structure of the K+ selectivity filter is more informative and more stunning than he ever could have imagined. A short sequence of five amino acids acts to filter out sodium ions, despite the fact that these are much smaller than the potassium ions that automatically gain admission to these channels.
Roderick MacKinnon attends the University of Massachusetts in Boston for only one year and then transfers to Brandeis University.
Roderick MacKinnon is born in Burlington, as fourth of seven children. His parents, despite not having much money, are able to offer their children a carefree atmosphere. They teach their children to be responsible for their own happiness and their own future. Since an early age, MacKinnon shows a lively curiosity for exploration and a keen interest in geology and in the history of the earth. During a summer of his youth he spends hours enchanted by the potentialities of a microscope.
Roderick MacKinnon receives his medical training in Internal Medicine at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston. During his medicine's year he recognises that he yearns to work on very basic science problems. Medicine requires a lot of memorization and too little analytical problem solving.
MacKinnon becomes assistant professor at Harvard where he studies the interaction of the potassium channel with a specific toxin derived from scorpion venom, acquainting himself with methods of protein purification and X-ray crystallography. He identifies in the potassium channel a short sequence of five amino acids that acts to filter out sodium ions. If one of the amino acids in this so-called signature sequence is altered, then sodium ions rush into the channel along with the potassium ions.
Roderick MacKinnon transfers to Brandeis University where he receives his bachelor's degree in biochemistry studying calcium transport through the cell membrane for his honours thesis in Christopher Miller's laboratory. At Brandeis University, MacKinnon meets his future wife and working-colleague Alice Lee.
Not satisfied with the medical profession, MacKinnon returns to Christopher Miller's laboratory. The loss of a sister and the strong support of Alice Lee are fundamental factors that influence his choice to continue his studies. At Miller's laboratory MacKinnon studies intensively. He works with Jacques Neyton, a very critical French scientist, with whom MacKinnon discusses his ideas. In these years, MacKinnon completes a series of biophysical studies on K+ channels.
MacKinnon leaves Harvard to pursue x-ray crystallography to visualize the arrangements of atoms in potassium channel. He moves to Rockefeller University, although many of his colleagues thought that giving up a successful laboratory in order to pursue the structure of K+ channel was risky. At Rockefeller University he is helped only by a postdoctoral scientist, Declan Doyle, and by his wife, but gradually his laboratory grows bigger. Persistence and dedication lead his group to many discoveries.
Roderick MacKinnon becomes teacher in the Department of Neurobiology. MacKinnon realises that he and his colleagues have identified the K+ channel signature sequence, but without knowing its structure they will never understand the chemical principles of ion selectivity in K+ channels.
Against Chris Miller's advice, Roderick MacKinnon enters Tufts University School of Medicine.
Roderick MacKinnon receives the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Peter Agre "for structural and mechanistic studies of ion channels." Understanding fundamental details of the way that potassium channels operate may eventually help in the design of drugs to treat many different disorders, including diabetes, heart disease, and asthma, all of which have been linked to alterations in potassium channel function.