The Amazing Origins of Aquaporin Water Filters

Aquaporin, a membrane found in animal, plant, bacteria, and fungi cells, is considered “the plumbing system of the cell” because of its ability to transport water from one cell to another in rapid succession. Water is one of the most important constituents for living cells, as it allows the cells to perform biochemical reactions needed to function properly. In addition to transporting water, researchers noted that aquaporin could also be the key to having faster water filters that separate dangerous elements and chemicals from clean water. How does this tiny membrane help in water filtration? The answer to the question will come up as we take a look at the amazing origins of aquaporin water filters.

Origins of Aquaporin Water Filters

Before we get into discussing the invention of the aquaporin water filter, let us first detail the story behind the discovery of the aquaporin membrane. In 1992, an American physician named Peter Agre reported seeing an unusual red cell membrane protein that he called 28 kDa (kilodalton) protein in kidney tubule (nephron) samples. Agre then noted that the same protein could also be found in the brain of the fruit fly, the lens in the eyes of mammals, in plants, and also in bacteria. Because he was unsure of the function of the said protein in cells, he consulted his friend and former hematology professor at the University California John C. Parker to find out the use of the 28 kDa protein. After studying the movement of the protein, Parker stated that the membrane is responsible for the rapid movement of water from cell to cell, and this discovery led to the solution to the long-standing mystery of how cells could transport water so quickly in the body.

In 1999, after further studies with the help of William Guggino and Gregory Preston, they decided to call the newly-discovered membrane as aquaporin-1 (AQP1).  According to Agre, the aquaporin is “the plumbing system of cells,” because of how similar its function is to the water pipes seen in houses, which could transport and take water away. Because of Agre’s discovery, research studies on aquaporins became more accessible for scientists. Some of these scientists found out that about twelve aquaporins are found in each human, while there are more or fewer aquaporins that exist in plants, invertebrates, and the parasites that cause malaria.

Due to the impact that the discovery of aquaporin brought to different fields of science, Peter Agre was awarded the Novel Prize in Chemistry in 2003. Along with Agre, an American biophysicist named Roderick MacKinnon also won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his research in the functions of ion channels.

In 2005, a company called Aquaporin was founded in Copenhagen to capitalize on the possibility that aquaporins can be utilized to produce a much more efficient water filter. The water filtration process requires several materials to function properly, but one of the key materials needed is the synthetic membrane filter, which is the one that separates dirt, gunk, and other harmful chemicals from water to make it clean and drinkable. As previously stated, aquaporins are able to transport water in and out of cells much quicker, but its secret function is that it helps membrane filters, like those found in the human kidneys, filter out water faster, thus allowing the body to have a stabilized flow of water. It is through this secret function that the Aquaporin company is exploiting the uses of the aquaporin membrane for man-made water filtration systems.

In a test conducted by the company, they found out that a synthetic membrane filter that contains aquaporin purifies drinking water 50% faster than previous membrane filters. Furthermore, because the aquaporins quicken the process of water filtration on the synthetic membrane, the amount of energy needed to perform the process is lesser than any other water infiltration system that is available before 2005. In addition to filtering water, the company said that aquaporin could also help in concentrating mixture or solutions like fruit juice or liquid medicines.

Today, Aquaporin’s biomimetic water filter technology is being developed to be used in future space missions, wherein recycled water is important since there is not a lot of supply of water on space ships. The company successfully raised more than 73 million euros to fund their project, and they were able to get this amount of money by conducting showcases to attract investors. Some of the investors who became interested in funding Aquaporin are several Danish investors, two water companies in China, and the European Union. Besides the development of better water filtration for space missions, Aquaporin also aims to launch their water filtration system to the public, as they believe that it will help several countries, especially those with no stable source of clean water, have easier and faster access to clean water.