Yoshinori Ohsumi of Japan won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine on Monday for his “discoveries of mechanisms for autophagy,” a fundamental process for degrading and recycling cellular components.
The prize was awarded by the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm.
According to the Nobel Prize website, the word “autophagy” originates from the Greek words auto-, meaning “self,” and phagein, meaning “to eat” ― or self-eating. The term was coined by Christian de Duve, who won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1974. Today, autophagy is known as the process whereby a cell can recycle part of its own content.
In the 1960s, researchers first observed the process in which a cell destroys its own contents by enclosing it in membranes, forming vesicles that are then transported to a recycling compartment for degradation. But it wasn’t until 30 years later that Ohsumi was able to create experiments that identified the genes essential to this process.
Using baker’s yeast as a model, Ohsumi showed the underlying mechanisms for autophagy and explained how a similar process occurred in human cells. His discoveries led to a new understanding of how a cell recycles its content, the Nobel Prize website stated.
“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,” the institute said in a statement. “Mutations in autophagy genes can cause disease, and the autophagic process is involved in several conditions including cancer and neurological disease.”
Born in Fukuoka, Japan, Ohsumi received a Ph.D from the University of Tokyo. He spent three years at Rockefeller University in New York before returning to his alma mater, where he established a research group in 1988. Since 2009, he has worked as a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology.
“I am extremely honored,” he told the Kyodo News agency.
Ohsumi is the sixth person from Japan to win the Nobel Prize in Medicine. According to The Associated Press, the prize is worth about $930,000.