Kyodo / Reuters

This year’s Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine has been awarded to Yoshinori Ohsumi for his discoveries of the mechanisms for autophagy, the process by which cells degrade and recycle their components.

Scientists first observed the phenomenon of autophagy in the 1960s, but had little understanding of the process by which cells destroyed their own contents by enclosing it in membranes. Then, in the 1990s, Ohsumi used baker’s yeast to identify genes essential for the process.

“He then went on to elucidate the underlying mechanisms for autophagy in yeast and showed that similar sophisticated machinery is used in our cells,” the Nobel committee said. It added:

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.

Ohsumi is a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology.

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