The Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet decided Monday to award the 2016 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine to Yoshinori Ohsumi for his discoveries of mechanisms for autophagy.
This year’s Nobel Laureate discovered and elucidated mechanisms underlying autophagy, a fundamental process for degrading and recycling cellular components.
The word autophagy originates from the Greek words auto-, meaning “self”, and phagein, meaning “to eat”. Thus,autophagy denotes “self eating”.
This concept emerged during the 1960’s, when researchers first observed that the cell could destroy its own contents by enclosing it in membranes, forming sack-like vesicles that were transported to a recycling compartment, called the lysosome, for degradation.
Difficulties in studying the phenomenon meant that little was known until, in a series of experiments in the early 1990’s, Yoshinori Ohsumi used baker’s yeast to identify genes essential for autophagy. He then went on to elucidate the underlying mechanisms for autophagy in yeast and showed that similar sophisticated machinery is used in our cells.
Ohsumi’s discoveries led to a new paradigm in the understanding of how the cell recycles its content. His discoveries opened the path to understanding the fundamental importance of autophagy in many physiological processes, such as in the adaptation to starvation or response to infection.
Mutations in autophagy genes can cause disease, and the autophagic process is involved in several conditions including cancer and neurological disease.
Autophagy has been known for over 50 years but its fundamental importance in physiology and medicine was only recognized after Yoshinori Ohsumi’s paradigm-shifting research in the 1990’s. For his discoveries, he is awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. Yoshinori Ohsumi is a Japanese cell biologist specializing in autophagy.