Yoshinori Ohsumi, a Japanese cell biologist, has won the 2016 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine for his discoveries on a process whereby cells essentially eat themselves. The process is called autophagy, and though it’s essential for your health, your high school biology teacher may have skipped a lesson on autophagy due to its complexity.
“Ohsumi’s discoveries led to a new paradigm in our understanding of how the cell recycles its content,” a press release by the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute (KI) in Stockholm says. “His discoveries opened the path to understanding the fundamental importance of autophagy in many physiological processes, such as in the adaptation to starvation or response to infection. Mutations in autophagy genes can cause disease, and the autophagic process is involved in several conditions including cancer and neurological disease.”
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The idea of autophagy was first proposed in the 1950s, but Ohsumi’s work in the early 1990s revealed some of the genes and processes involved – specifically, how one kind of organelle, called a lysosome, was involved in enveloping and consuming other parts of the cell. He did this by breeding yeast cells and then deliberately starving them so they began to break down their own organelles to save energy. He found that the cells then filled with small sacs, which he called autophagosomes, which transported parts for autophagy into the yeast cells’ equivalent of the lysosome.
Sir Paul Nurse, director of the Francis Crick Institute, said in a statement: “This is a well-deserved Nobel for Yoshinori Ohsumi. Almost singlehandedly he founded the field that led to the mechanisms underlying autophagy, the process by which cells degrade and recycle their components under stress.
“He used the simple organism yeast to identify the genes required for autophagy, once again demonstrating the power of simple model organisms to unravel complex biological processes. These genes also operate in humans opening up the investigation of the role autophagy plays in human diseases including cancer and neurological disease.”
Ohsumi, who currently works at the Tokyo Institute of Technology in Yokohama, becomes the 23rd Nobel Prize winner from Japan, and the country’s sixth medicine laureate. Of the 107 Nobel awards for physiology and medicine, Ohsumi becomes only the 39th to win as the sole recipient.