Washington, DC - October 3, 2016 - Yoshinori Ohsumi, a Japanese cell biologist and ASM member, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine on Monday for his discoveries on how cells recycle and degrade their content, a process known as autophagy.
The concept of autophagy, which literally means “self eating,” emerged during the 1960s, when researchers noticed that cells could destroy their own content by enclosing it in membranes, forming sack-like vesicles that were transported to a recycling compartment, called the lysosome, for breakdown. This was a challenging phenomenon to study, so very little was known about this process until a series of brilliant experiments by Yoshinori Ohsumi in the early 1990s, using baker's yeast, identified the genes essential for autophagy. Ohsumi went forward to shed light on the underlying mechanisms for autophagy in yeast and showed that similar sophisticated machinery is used in our own cells.
Ohsumi's discoveries helped in our understanding of how cells recycle their contents. His discoveries helped us understand the role of autophagy in many physiological processes, such as in the adaptation to starvation or response to infection. Additionally, mutations in autophagy genes can cause disease, as the autophagic process is involved in several conditions, including cancer and neurological disease.