Issue 06, September 2007
homepage > The 2007 Onassis Foundation Science Lecture Series Biological Channels and Atom Condensation
The 2007 Onassis Foundation Science Lecture Series
Biological Channels and Atom Condensation

Leading international scientists, amongst whom were two Nobel laureates, were invited this summer to give lectures at the Foundation for Research and Technology-Hellas (FORTH) in Heraklion, Crete, within the framework of the 2007 Onassis Foundation Science Lecture Series.


These advanced seminar lectures, held for the seventh consecutive year with the financial support of the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation, are addressed to a small number of international (post-graduate and advanced undergraduate) students who are strictly selected on the basis of their academic performance and receive a certificate after successful participation in the lectures.

The first lecture series, devoted to Biology, was held over the period July 2-6, 2007, and was entitled 'Channels and Channelopathies'. The principal lecturer was Professor Peter Agre, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry (2003) and Vice Chancellor for Science and Technology at the Duke University Medical Center, USA.

Specific stereostructures, mainly proteins, function as channels and maintain the cell’s homeostatic optimum
Specific stereostructures, mainly proteins, function as channels and maintain the cell’s homeostatic optimum

Every cell is covered by a (mainly hydrophobic) biomembrane that separates the intracellular and extracellular environments, thus impeding mass exchange between them. However, for the purposes of cellular metabolism and communication between the different cells of a tissue, but also between the different tissues, a transmembrane transfer of mass (ions, sugars, amino-acids, even water) is needed. This transfer of mass has to overcome the problem of the hydrophobic domain of the membrane interior, which means that most of the molecules that must 'pass through' the membrane are not soluble in it. Moreover, for the cell to maintain its homeostatic optimum, this transmembrane mass transfer needs to be specific in chemical type and with well-controlled rates. Both these problems are overcome thanks to the existence and involvement of specific stereostructures (mainly proteins) functioning as channels or pumps that maintain the cell's homeostatic optimum. Any significant divergence from this homeostatic balance causes a metabolic malfunction often resulting in pathological conditions or diseases.

In the 2007 Biology Lecture Series, the speakers analyzed the main characteristics of channels and pumps, and presented cases of diseases (mostly human) resulting from their dis-regulation. They presented representative examples found in unicellular organisms, animals and plants, and they focused, amongst others, on water, K+ and Ca++ channels and pumps.  Finally, they investigated the role of channels and pumps in diseases of the heart, the kidneys, etc.

Dr Peter Agre, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry 2003
Dr Peter Agre, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry 2003

Apart from Professor Peter Agre, the following lecturers were invited: Guiliano Avanzini, Professor, Clinical Neuroscience Department, Italian National Neurological Institute “Carlo Besta”, Milano; Ernesto Carafoli, Professor, Department of Biological Chemistry, University of Padova; Andreas Engel, Professor, M.E. Muller Institute for Structural Biology, Biozentrum, University of Basel; Per Kjellbom, Professor, Center for Molecular Protein Science, Lund University; Douglas Rees, Professor, Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, California Institute of Technology; Nektarios Tavernarakis, Principal Investigator, Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, FORTH, Crete.
The second 2007 Onassis Lecture Series, devoted to Physics, is entitled 'Bose-Einstein Condensation' and will be held over the period July 23-27, 2007. Bose-Einstein condensation is quite possibly one of the most beautiful paradigms of the 'strangeness' of quantum mechanics: millions of atoms lose their individual identities and start behaving like a single wave. This behavior had been predicted by Albert Einstein already in 1924, on the basis of Satyendranath Bose's work on photon statistics: at extremely low temperatures, atoms start condensing. Of course, at that time, Einstein thought it impossible for experimentalists to ever be able to reach low temperatures in the vicinity of absolute zero, and, indeed, it took 70 years for experimentalists to be able to demonstrate this for the first time. In 1995, two American research groups used lasers and magnets to cool almost a million atoms to the lowest temperatures that ever existed anywhere in the universe, and saw for the first time a Bose-Einstein Condensate.  This brought the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physics to Professor Wolfgang Ketterle of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who will be the principal lecturer in the 2007 Onassis Lectures in Physics.

Dr Wolfgang Ketterle Nobel Laureate in Physics 2001
Dr Wolfgang Ketterle Nobel Laureate in Physics 2001

Today, Bose-Einstein Condensates are produced in over sixty laboratories around the world. They are ideal research tools to examine a wide range of problems, such as superconductivity, superfluidity, solid state phenomena, etc. A new generation of experiments, one of which is being conducted at FORTH, uses Bose-Einstein Condensates to create the most sensitive accelerometers that have ever existed.

Apart from Professor Wolfgang Ketterle, the following lecturers are invited: Alain Aspect, Professor, Head of Atom Optics Group, Laboratoire Charles Fabry, Institut d'Optique, University of Paris (Sud); Massimo Inguscio, Professor, Head of the Quantum Degenerate Gases Group, European Laboratory for Non-Linear Spectroscopy (LENS), University of Florence; Wolf von Klitzing, Researcher and Group Leader, Institute of Electronic Structure and Laser, FORTH; Thorsten Köhler, Royal Society Research Fellow, Atomic and Laser Physics, Clarendon Laboratory, University of Oxford; Tilman Pfau, Professor, Head of the 5th Institute of Physics, University of Stuttgart; Christophe Salomon, Research Director at CNRS, Laboratoire Kastler-Brossel, Ecole Normale Supérieure; Sandro Stringari, Professor, Director of the CNR-INFM Research and Development Center on Bose-Einstein Condensation, University of Trento.

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