In Memoriam Sir Michael Berridge MAE FRS 1938 – 2020

In Memoriam Sir Michael Berridge MAE FRS 1938 – 2020

By Ole H Petersen1 CBE MAE FRS and Carl C H Petersen2 MAE

1School of Biosciences, Cardiff University, UK and 2Brain Mind Institute, EPFL, Switzerland

Sir Michael Berridge, one of the giants in the fields of physiology and biochemistry, and one of the very early members of Academia Europaea (elected 1989), passed away on 12th February 2020.

Mike, as he was universally known, discovered one of the most important regulatory mechanisms in animal cells, namely the ubiquitous calcium releasing effect of the small water soluble molecule inositol trisphosphate (IP3). Mike was also a great synthesizer, who effectively created an entirely new field – Calcium Signalling – in cell biology. Through his numerous highly cited review articles, published in the most prominent scientific journals, and his insightful overview lectures at the most important biomedical conferences, he dominated a large and increasingly important research field. In recognition of his enormous contributions to biomedical science, Mike received almost every important scientific award, including election to the Royal Society, a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II for ‘Services to Science’, election to the US National Academy of Sciences, the King Faisal International Prize in Science, the Jeantet Prize in Medicine, the Gairdner Foundation International Award, the Lasker Basic Medical  Research Award, the Dr H P Heineken Prize for Biochemistry and Biophysics, the Wolf Foundation Prize in Medicine and the Shaw Prize in Life Sciences and Medicine.

Mike was born in what is now Zimbabwe and received his BSc from what was then called University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (now University of Zimbabwe). He obtained his PhD from the University of Cambridge and was a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Virginia and Case Western Reserve University in the US. Thereafter he spent what would become by far the major part of his working life in Cambridge, first in the University Department of Zoology and later at the Babraham Institute, where he was Head of Cell Signalling until his retirement in 2003. He continued to work at the Institute as an Emeritus Babraham Fellow until recently.

Mike’s sensational discovery of IP3 as the ubiquitous releaser of calcium from intracellular stores was published in Nature in 1983. It was clearly Mike’s insight and creative conceptual idea that prompted the key experiments that were then carried out by Irene Schulz MAE and her post-doctoral research fellow, Hans-Peter Streb, at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysics in Frankfurt. In Cambridge, Robin Irvine MAE FRS was a key collaborator in this work and it was the 1984 review article in Nature by Mike and Robin that very effectively signposted what amazingly quickly became generally accepted as one of the key findings in the field of cellular signal transduction mechanisms. The IP3 – calcium releasing pathway is now featured in all textbooks of physiology and biochemistry.

Mike Berridge at the 1993 conference held at the National Institute of Physiological Sciences, Okazaki, Japan to celebrate the 70th birthday of Setsuro Ebashi, who in 1962 (J Cell Biol) published the discovery of the active process of calcium accumulation into intracellular stores, which is the basis for the IP3-mediated calcium signal generation discovered by Mike Berridge.

Mike Berridge, Irene Schulz (in whose laboratory at the Max Planck Institute in Frankfurt the critical experiments showing the calcium releasing effect of IP3 were carried out) and Ole Petersen at the 2003 Gordon Research Conference on Calcium Signaling in South Hadley, Massachusetts

Although Mike was an accomplished and sophisticated experimentalist in his early years, his main interest – after his great discovery – became increasingly focussed on the ‘big picture’ of intracellular calcium signalling. His great strength was the constant focus on creating more and more intricate models of the intracellular signal transduction processes, which he presented at the major conferences in the field and published in numerous very influential Review Articles. This created the context for the evolution of the calcium signalling research field.

One of us (OHP) met Mike almost half a century ago (autumn 1970) at a Royal Society Discussion meeting in London on ‘Active transport of salt and water in living tissues’. At that time, we both worked on the mechanisms underlying the formation of saliva, a topic most biomedical scientists regarded as not only esoteric, but also rather unimportant! However, it was precisely Mike’s work on insect salivary glands that led to the discovery that constitutes the very foundation of the calcium signalling field.  

Mike followed with intense curiosity all relevant new findings in the literature and would often call me (OHP), and no doubt many others in the field, immediately upon publication of what he considered an interesting paper, to discuss the implications of the new results. Many valuable discussions, that had real implications for my further research work, also occurred at the numerous conferences in Europe, Japan and the US at which we were both invited speakers. Mike was a formidable lecturer. He spoke with great authority and exceptionally clear diction. Furthermore, he was able to express complicated concepts in an intuitively clear manner. In addition to his profound scientific insights, these attributes made him one of the most sought after Plenary Lecturers at symposia and congresses throughout the world.

As a doctoral student under the supervision of Prof Sir Michael Berridge, I (CCHP) was deeply inspired by Mike’s clarity of scientific thinking and his broad vision. At the time in the early 1990’s, Mike was already very famous, but still very present in the laboratory, even maintaining an experimental rig in his office in the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge. We had frequent discussions at the daily departmental tea times, where senior faculty and young students met freely. He was a wonderful mentor, and I often try to pass on some of his wisdom to my own students. One prominent recollection I have of Mike’s advice to me as a young scientist provides an interesting counterpoint to the daily rush of the scientific endeavour. He recommended putting a completed manuscript to rest in a drawer for a year, and if it was still considered interesting after that, then it would be worth submitting for journal publication! Mike captured the big picture and was a deep scientific thinker.

Mike received, throughout his working life, fantastic support from his wife Susan. He was always notably happier at international meetings when accompanied by Sue, who drew out his best human characteristics. Our thoughts are with her and the family.

Mike was generous with his time, freely gave away ideas and was always willing to provide support when asked. His influence on all of us was profound and his help, advice and direct support will not be forgotten.

17th February 2020. For further information please contact
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