Tributes paid to Professor Sir Michael Berridge

Colleagues have paid tribute to the physiologist and biochemist, Sir Michael Berridge (1938-2020), a Fellow of the Royal Society, a Fellow of Trinity, Emeritus Babraham Fellow and Honorary Professor of Cell Signalling at the University of Cambridge.

Sir Michael’s work on cell signaling and the landmark discovery of the key role that calcium plays in controlling cellular activity led ultimately to important insights into the physiology of conditions as diverse as cancer, bipolar disorder, cardiovascular and neurological diseases.

Photo: Babraham Institute

Professor of Neuroscience at Cambridge and Trinity Fellow, Roger Keynes, said:

Michael Berridge was a distinguished biologist whose work addressed how animal cells signal and respond chemically to one another. Early in his career he became interested in the control of fluid secretion by an insect salivary gland. Seeking to understand this simple model system led him ultimately to unravel the major features of a new chemical signalling pathway, operating in and between cells throughout the body.

Sir Michael was born in 1938 in Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, where he developed a love of nature and was encouraged by his biology teacher. After a degree in Zoology and Chemistry at the University of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, which catalyzed his interest in insect physiology, he came to Cambridge on a Commonwealth Scholarship for his PhD with Sir Vincent Wigglesworth.

It was towards the end of his PhD that Sir Michael became interested in cell signalling, which he explored during postdoctoral research in the United States, before returning to Cambridge’s Zoology Department. His research involved collaborations with Rex Dawson and Robin Irvine of the Babraham Institute, which Sir Michael joined in 1990, becoming Head of Signalling in 1996, a post he held until retirement.

Sir Gregory Winter, Master of Trinity 2012-2019, explains the significance of the work of ‘a brilliant scientist’:

It was already known that hormones and neurotransmitters secreted by one cell could lead to changes in the biology and chemistry of other (target) cells. It was thought that this involved activation of receptors on the surface of the target cells by the hormone, and an increase of calcium in the cytosol of target cells. However, the molecular link between receptor activation and increase in cytosolic calcium was not known.

While studying the secretions of insect salivary glands, Michael discovered that the molecule inositol trisphosphate (IP3) is produced at the cell surface in response to receptor activation, and that this molecule diffuses through the cell and triggers the release of calcium from intracellular stores.  This was a breakthrough – Michael had discovered one of the key chemical messengers involved in transmitting information within cells.

In Sir Michael’s own words, he recalled ‘the eureka moment.’

This was very much a eureka moment, because I can remember being very excited when I saw the results coming off the scintillation counter and felt that I had probably discovered something important. Indeed, my wife Susan still remembers my intense excitement when I arrived home to tell her about my discovery. Little did I know at the time just how significant this would turn out to be.

Sir Michael’s discovery was recognised by many national and international awards, including a knighthood in 1998, the Royal Society Croonian Lecture and Royal Medal (1991), the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Award (1989) and the Shaw Prize (2005). He was elected to the Royal Society in 1984 and to both the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1999.

Subsequent work by Sir Michael and others has shown the importance of the inositol trisphosphate/calcium mechanism in the regulation of processes as varied as fertilization, cell growth and proliferation, cardiac contraction and information processing in the nervous system.

Trinity Fellow, Dr Alan Weeds, recalls Sir Michael’s interest in the role of calcium in memory storage.

In Alzheimer’s dementia the calcium level is permanently elevated so that all memories are erased from the temporary store. Research had been published suggesting that people severely deficient in Vitamin D were more than twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s dementia than those who had normal levels. Michael carried out a wide-ranging literature study to identify the possible biochemical pathways by which vitamin D has these effects. The mechanisms he identified are plausible but further clinical trials would be needed to establish whether adequate levels of vitamin D can prevent or treat the disease.

After retiring in 2003, Sir Michael continued to work as an Emeritus Babraham Fellow, playing an active role in the Institute and encouraging new PhD students. The annual Sir Michael Berridge Prize established through his generosity recognizes research excellence by PhD students or postdoctoral scientists.

The Babraham Institute has a book of remembrance for anyone wishing to contribute their memories of Sir Michael. Please share these to comms@babraham.ac.uk.

Dr Alan Weeds was Teaching Fellow in Biochemistry, 1975–2007, and for nearly 20 years Senior Director of Studies in Natural Sciences at Trinity. Read his personal recollections of Sir Michael Berridge.

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