The Institute is extremely saddened to hear of the death of Sir Michael Berridge, who died peacefully at home on Thursday 13th February. Sir Michael was a leading figure at the Institute from 1990 onwards. Sir Michael’s landmark discovery of the mechanism of cellular signalling by which external signals are received at the cell membrane surface and transmitted internally, not only shaped future research but shed light on the biology of disease from cancer to cardiovascular and neurological diseases. He retired from his position as Head of Cell Signalling at the Institute in 2003 but continued to work as an Emeritus Babraham Fellow, being a familiar face until very recently.
The awards and honours received by Sir Michael during his lifetime are too extensive to list in full but he was elected a Fellow of The Royal Society in 1984 and was knighted by Her Majesty The Queen in 1998 for service to science. He was elected to both the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1999 and in 2007 became a member of the American Philosophical Society.
Professor Michael Wakelam, Babraham Institute Director, said: “Mike Berridge was a superb scientist whose work upon IP3 and calcium was paradigm shifting, he was also a wonderful colleague who we will all miss. He had a rigorous but supportive approach in promoting excellence in the Institute’s science and devoted much of his time in supporting and helping his colleagues. He was also particularly active in promoting the careers and development of younger scientists both within the Institute, in Cambridge and beyond.”
Sir Michael was born in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1938. His reflections of growing up included remembering the diversity of animals and birds, including sketching them in his schoolbooks, and he said that his love of nature inspired his initial interest in following an academic career. Following encouragement by his biology teacher, Miss Pamela Bates, Sir Michael read zoology and chemistry at the University of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. This awoke an interest in insect physiology and Sir Michael obtained a Commonwealth Scholarship to do a PhD in the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge with Sir Vincent Wigglesworth, the father of insect physiology.
Sir Michael’s interest in cell signalling began at the end of his PhD and he decided to focus on this for his postdoctoral research at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville with Professor Dietrich Bodenstein, subsequently continuing this work at the Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland (with Michael Locke and Bodil Schmidt-Nielsen). It wasn’t all plain sailing, Sir Michael reported critical difficulties with trying to achieve successful external culture of blowfly tissues, making great effort without much progress, until a chance discovery proposed a new research question that would launch Sir Michael into the field of cellular chemical messengers and cell signalling cascades. In this time, Sir Michael was able to establish that cyclic AMP was a key intracellular messenger in the insect salivary gland where it mediated the action of a first messenger received at the cell surface (in this case a hormone called 5-hydroxytryptamine).
Sir Michael built on this discovery when he moved to the UK to join the Zoology Department at the University of Cambridge. It was here that Sir Michael devised methods of measuring calcium signalling and inositol phosphates. This work brought him into first contact with the Babraham Institute through collaborations with Rex Dawson and Robin Irvine, experts in inositol phosphate biochemistry. After a series of steps, Sir Michael was able to propose that IP3 was the diffusible messenger that coupled the PI response (the turnover of a cell membrane lipid, called phosphatidylinositol) to the mobilisation of calcium inside the cell. In Michael’s own words: “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.”
Follow up collaborative work with Robin Irvine and Irene Schulz (Max Planck Institute for Biophysics, Frankfurt) resulted in Sir Michael’s first Nature paper in 1983.
The discovery that IP3 was a universal second messenger controlling intracellular calcium signalling completely changed Sir Michael’s life and heralded a new phase in his research career.
Sir Michael joined the Babraham Institute as the Deputy Chief Scientific Officer in the Institute’s Laboratory of Molecular Signalling in 1990, before becoming the Head of Signalling in 1996, a post he held until his retirement in 2003. During this time he continued to make notable contributions to our understanding of the role and regulation of intracellular calcium-mediated signalling. After his retirement, Sir Michael continued to be an active part of Institute life, becoming an Emeritus Babraham Fellow. In particular, he had a significant influence on new PhD students, who he enthused through the story of his own research career.
The Institute is proud to list him as a pioneering member of our community who will stand long in our memory. We send our deepest condolences to his family and wish them comfort in the messages and recollections of his global network of contacts, knowing that he shaped biology forever and was an inspiration to many. His memory will live on at the Institute as we continue the annual Sir Michael Berridge prize established through his generosity which recognises research excellence by PhD students or postdoctoral scientists.
The Institute has established a book of remembrance which is open to anyone wishing to contribute their memories of Sir Michael. Please share these to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr Louisa Wood, Communications Manager, email@example.com, 01223 496230
Sir Michael Berridge and a diagram illustrating the components of the cellular signalling pathway mechanism he elucidated.
Additional/related resources:Wikipedia page for Michael Berridge
About the Babraham Institute
The Babraham Institute undertakes world-class life sciences research to generate new knowledge of biological mechanisms underpinning ageing, development and the maintenance of health. Our research focuses on cellular signalling, gene regulation and the impact of epigenetic regulation at different stages of life. By determining how the body reacts to dietary and environmental stimuli and manages microbial and viral interactions, we aim to improve wellbeing and support healthier ageing. The Institute is strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), part of UK Research and Innovation, through an Institute Core Capability Grant and also receives funding from other UK research councils, charitable foundations, the EU and medical charities.
13 February 2020