Yoshinori Ohsumi was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discoveries on a autophagy in cells. The term is Greek for “self-eating,” which is essentially how the cells are able to recycle their own content.
Autophagy is crucial for several purposes. Cells can survive longer during starvation by breaking down proteins and nonessential components for energy. They also fend off invading viruses and bacteria by sending them off for recycling. And cells can also use autophagy to get rid of damaged structures. It is thought that the process is disrupted by cancer, infectious diseases, immunological disease and neurodegenerative disorders. Knowledge about the phenomenon may be critical in the fight against those diseases.
Dr. Ohsumi began to study the process and its role in disease and normal development in the 1990s in baker’s yeast. His discovery of the autophagy genes and the metabolic pathways in yeast are also found in higher organisms, including humans. The mutations in those genes lead to disease. Prior to Dr. Ohsumi’s work, little was known about how autophagy happens, what genes were involved, and how it played into disease and development. His research has inspired hundreds of new studies around the world.
The Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, congratulated Dr. Ohsumi, saying, “Your research gave light to the people who suffer from serious disease.”
He is the 25th Japanese person to win a Nobel Prize.