Dr Nigel Unwin

nigel unwin

University position

Emeritus Scientist, LMB


Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology

Home page

http://www2.mrc-lmb.cam.ac.uk/groups/nu/ (personal home page)

Research Theme

Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience


I am interested in finding out how ion channels work, using electron microscopy to analyse their structures trapped in different physiological states. Current research focuses on the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor, the transmitter-gated ion channel at the nerve-muscle synapse. Images of isolated Torpedo postsynaptic membranes have now yielded a refined atomic model of this channel at 4Å resolution. Freeze-trapping combined with imaging experiments are providing a mechanistic picture of how binding of acetylcholine opens the channel in near-atomic detail.

Looking down the ion pathway of an ACh receptor, viewed from the synaptic cleft.
View image full-size (1512x1444 pixels)

Research Focus


None specified

Clinical conditions


Myasthenia gravis

Neuromuscular disorders


Electron microscopy



No collaborators listed

Associated News Items

    Key publications

    Unwin N, Fujiyoshi Y (2012), “Gating movement of acetylcholine receptor caught by plunge-freezing.” J Mol Biol 422(5):617-34 Details

    O'Brien J, Unwin N (2006), “Organization of spines on the dendrites of Purkinje cells” Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 103:1575-1580 Details



    Unwin N (2013), “Nicotinic acetylcholine receptor and the structural basis of neuromuscular transmission: insights from Torpedo postsynaptic membranes.” Q Rev Biophys 46(4):283-322 Details

    Zuber B, Unwin N (2013), “Structure and superorganization of acetylcholine receptor-rapsyn complexes.” Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 110(26):10622-7 Details


    Fisher LS, Ward A, Milligan RA, Unwin N, Potter CS, Carragher B (2011), “A helical processing pipeline for EM structure determination of membrane proteins.” Methods 55(4):350-62 Details


    Unwin N (2005), “Refined structure of the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor at 4A resolution.” J Mol Biol 346(4):967-89 Details


    Miyazawa A, Fujiyoshi Y, Unwin N (2003), “Structure and gating mechanism of the acetylcholine receptor pore.” Nature 423(6943):949-55 Details

    Unwin N (2003), “Structure and action of the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor explored by electron microscopy.” FEBS Lett 555(1):91-5 Details


    Unwin N (2002), “Structure of the acetylcholine-gated channel.” Novartis Found Symp 245:5-15; discussion 15-21, 165-8 Details

    Unwin N, Miyazawa A, Li J, Fujiyoshi Y (2002), “Activation of the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor involves a switch in conformation of the alpha subunits.” J Mol Biol 319(5):1165-76 Details


    Tierney ML, Unwin N (2000), “Electron microscopic evidence for the assembly of soluble pentameric extracellular domains of the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor.” J Mol Biol 303(2):185-96 Details

    Unwin N (2000), “The Croonian Lecture 2000. Nicotinic acetylcholine receptor and the structural basis of fast synaptic transmission.” Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci 355(1404):1813-29 Details