1. 2003 Nobel Prize in Chemistry: Roderick Mackinnon and Peter Agre, for their work on ion channels and the discovery of water channels (the aquaporins) specifically. Prior to the discovery of aquaporins, most scientists believed that water merely “leaked” through the cell membrane. The highly regulated process of water transport in the collecting duct of the nephron was one important clue that specific channels are responsible for the movement of water in and out of the cell.
2. 1990 Nobel Prize in Physiology & Medicine: Joseph Murray, the surgeon who performed the first-ever kidney transplant between identical twins, thereby demonstrating that previous failures at kidney transplantation were due to immunologic incompatibilities rather than surgical technique.
3. 1997 Nobel Prize in Chemistry: Jens Skou, a Danish chemist who is credited with the discovery of the Na/K ATPase. Although this has broad implications for all cell types, the Na/K pumps is essential in understanding the chemical gradients which allow for ion transport to occur all along the nephron.
Obviously there are a ton of other Nobel prize recipients whose work has relevance to Nephrology, as well as just about every other field of medicine (e.g., the discovery of DNA by Watson & Crick) but I’ve listed the ones that stand out to me as being of special interest to nephrologists.