For elucidating how cells clean house through the process of autophagy.
This year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been awarded to Japanese scientist Yoshinori Ohsumi for his groundbreaking discoveries of how cells recycle their contents through a process called autophagy.
The concept of autophagy, derived from the Greek words meaning “self-eating”, emerged in the 1960s. Back then, researchers observed that cells destroyed their own contents (e.g. proteins or infectious particles) by enclosing them in membranes and shuttling them into compartments, called lysosomes, for degradation.
But autophagy proved difficult to study and remained a mysterious process until Ohsumi performed a series of experiments using baker’s yeast — a common model for human cells — to uncover the genes involved in the early 1990s, according to a press release. He then determined the mechanism by which autophagy occurred by elucidating the various proteins and complexes that regulate the process.
By establishing that that these same processes controlled autophagy in human cells, Ohsumi built a foundation for later breakthroughs in understanding how cells eliminate invading bacteria and viruses, how cells divide in growing embryos, and how cells counteract the negative consequences of aging. Disruption of autophagy is also linked to Parkinson’s disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and various genetic diseases.
Although autophagy was first observed more than 50 years ago, it wasn’t until Ohsumi’s research in the 1990s that its fundamental importance in physiology and medicine was recognized.
Ohsumi was born in Fukuoka, Japan and is currently a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology.
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