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October 03, 2016 | Uhuruspirit

Yoshinori Ohsumi of Japan used baker’s yeast to identify genes essential for autophagy. Credit Akiko Matsushita/Kyodo News, via Associated Press

Yoshinori Ohsumi, a Japanese cell biologist, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine on Monday for his discoveries on how cells recycle their content, a process known as autophagy.

Autophagy, derived from Greek, means “self-eating.”

“This concept emerged during the 1960s, when researchers first observed that the cell could destroy its own contents by enclosing it in membranes, forming sacklike vesicles that were transported to a recycling compartment, called the lysosome, for degradation,” the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm said in announcing the prize.

In a series of experiments in the early 1990s, Dr. Ohsumi used baker’s yeast to identify genes essential for autophagy, and he went on to examine the underlying mechanisms of the process.

“Ohsumi’s discoveries led to a new paradigm in our understanding of how the cell recycles its content,” the Nobel Assembly said. “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, the assembly said, and disruptions in the process have been linked to Parkinson’s disease, Type 2 diabetes and cancer.


Like many scientists, Dr. Ohsumi, who was born in 1945 in Fukuoka, Japan, and received a Ph.D. from the University of Tokyo in 1974, floundered at first trying to find his way. He started out in chemistry but decided it was too established a field with few opportunities.

So he switched to molecular biology. But his Ph.D. thesis was unimpressive, and he could not find a job. His adviser suggested a postdoctoral position at Rockefeller University in New York, where he was to study in vitro fertilization in mice.

“I grew very frustrated,” he told the Journal of Cell Biology. He switched to studying yeast.

He became an associate professor and established his research lab in 1988.

There, at age 43, he made the discoveries that the Nobel Assembly recognized on Monday. Dr. Ohsumi later moved to the National Institute for Basic Biology, in Okazaki, and since 2009, he has been a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology.

When he received the Canada Gairdner International Award last year, which is given for outstanding discoveries or contributions to medical science, he described himself to The Globe and Mail newspaper as “just a basic researcher in yeast.”

He acknowledged, however, that the process was seen as fundamental to human cell survival. “I believe its relevance to many diseases will be discovered in the near future,” he told the newspaper. Why did he win?

Cells need to degrade proteins in development and in their normal lifetimes as well as during diseases like cancer, infection and starvation. Biologists knew there was a sack in the cell that seemed like a garbage dump, but few had bothered to ask much more about it. Dr. Ohsumi discovered how cells control degradation of their own proteins, what genes are involved, and what happens when autophagy goes awry.

Why is his work important?

Disruptions in autophagy are thought to underlie many conditions, including cancer, infections, neurological diseases and aging. And since autophagy is a fundamental and crucial function in cells, it can be important to understand how it is controlled and what its consequences are.


“All I can say is, it’s such an honor,” Dr. Ohsumi told reporters at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, according to the Japanese broadcaster NHK. “I’d like to tell young people that not all can be successful in science, but it’s important to rise to the challenge.”

Who won last year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine?

William C. Campbell, Satoshi Omura and Tu Youyou were recognized for their use of modern laboratory techniques to discover anti-parasitic drugs long hidden in herbs and soil.


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