Physiology Nobel Prize Awarded for Autophagy Research

Physiology Nobel Prize Awarded for Autophagy Research

By Marianne von Euler

Molecular biologist, Yoshinori Ohsumi has won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on autophagy: the process by which the cell digests and recycles its own components.

The 71-year-old Japanese scientist, from the Tokyo Institute of Technology in Yokohama, was acknowledged for his experiments in the 1990s, when he used Saccharomyces cerevisiae (baker’s yeast) to detect genes that control the way cells destroy their own contents. Ohsumi believes that the fundamental functions and mechanisms are the same in human cells so this is a model organism to work with.

Ohsumi was born in Fukuoka, Japan, in 1945 and he began studying yeast as a postdoc in 1988. He established strains of yeast that lacked key enzymes that were thought to play a role in autophagy, expecting to see what happened to the cells when the process didn’t function as it should. The primary objective of his research group is the molecular characterization of autophagy.

The prize was awarded only to him, which is surprising as Ohsumi commented on the telephone interview following the announcement, “…. because so many people are now working in the autophagy field”.

Implications of Yoshinori Ohsumi’s findings’:

Professor Ohsumi´s findings are of great relevance for human research since the discovery that autophagy plays a crucial role in embryo development, cell differentiation, and the immune system. A failure in autophagy can lead to the development of several diseases, including cancer, diabetes, and neurodegenerative disorders such as Huntington disease and Parkinson´s Disease.

Although scientists have been studying autophagy since the 1960s, many unanswered questions remain in this field and this award will encourage more research groups to move into the study of autophagy and its relation to human diseases.

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Van Noorden, et al. Medical award for cell recycling, Nature 538, 18–19, 2016.

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