Japanese Cell Biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi Awarded Nobel Prize
Japanese cell biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine on Monday for his discoveries of mechanisms for autophagy, a process involving the recycling of cell contents. He is currently a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. “The Nobel Committee announced the prize in Stockholm and said in a statement that the cell biologist “discovered and elucidated mechanisms underlying autophagy, a fundamental process for degrading and recycling cellular components.” The concept of Autophagy emerged during 1960s, but scientists were little aware of it. It was Oshumi, who pioneered the experiments with baker’s yeast in the 1990s. Autophagy has the power to eliminate invading intracellular bacteria, and disrupted autophagy has been linked to Parkinson’s disease, type 2 diabetes and other disorders that particularly affect the elderly.
What is autophagy?
The term “autophagy” means “self eating”, which was first coined by scientists studying cell behaviour in the 1960s. It is very significant process in human body. During starvation, cells break down proteins and nonessential components and reuse them for energy. Dr. Oshumi discovered autophagy genes and metabloic pathways in yeast, which are used by higher organisms, including humans. His work led to a new field and inspired hundreds of researchers around the world to study the process and opened a new area of inquiry.
The statement of the Nobel Committee read, “Autophagy can rapidly provide fuel for energy and building blocks for renewal of cellular components, and is therefore essential for the cellular response to starvation and other types of stress. After infection, autophagy can eliminate invading intracellular bacteria and viruses.”
Dr. Oshumi completed his Ph.D. from the University of Tokyo in 1974. Though he started out in chemistry, he later switched to molecular biology. He switched to studying the duplication of DNA in yeast. That work led him to a junior professor position at the University of Tokyo where he picked up a microscope and started peering at sacks in yeast where cell components are degraded — work that eventually brought him, at age 43, to the discoveries that the Nobel Assembly recognized on Monday.