The 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been awarded to Yoshinori Ohsumi (photo), Ph.D., “for his discoveries of mechanisms for autophagy,” according to an October 3, 2016 announcement from the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden. Dr. Ohsumi discovered and elucidated mechanisms underlying autophagy, a fundamental process for degrading and recycling cellular components. The concept of autophagy 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 learned until, in a series of brilliant experiments in the early 1990's, Dr. 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. Dr. Ohsumi's discoveries led to a new paradigm in our 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. In the mid 1950's, scientists observed a new specialized cellular organelle containing enzymes that digest proteins, carbohydrates, and lipids.
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