Yoshinori Ohsumi, a biologist from the Toykyo Institute of Technology, was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering mechanisms underlying autophagy, a process for degrading and recycling cellular components.
The concept of autophagy emerged around the 1960s but its mechanisms had not been fully elucidated until the 1990s when Ohsumi began experimenting with baker’s yeast. Researchers had first observed that the cell could destroy its own contents by forming lysosomes for degradation. Ohsumi later used baker’s yeast to identify genes that were essential for autophagy. He later demonstrated that the underlying mechanisms of autophagy in yeast were similar to that in human cells.
Ohsumi’s discoveries help expand the importance of autophagy in various physiological processes, including the adaptation to starvation and response to infection. Mutations in autophagy genes can result in disease and the autophagic process is known to play a role in conditions such as cancer, Parkinsonism, type 2 diabetes, and other disorders that appear in the elderly population. Research is currently ongoing to develop drugs that can target autophagy in different diseases.
For more information visit NobelPrize.org.