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Nobel Laureate Medicine 2016: Yoshinori Ohsumi

The 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine highlights a process that is integral to aging, cancer, and infectious disease, but has not been well known outside of cell biology. On 7 December 2016, Professor Yoshinori Ohsumi from the Tokyo Institute of Technology received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Ohsumi was honored for research on autophagy, a ubiquitous cell process that previously received little public attention. Since the Nobel announcement, Ohsumi received a Life Sciences Breakthrough Prize from the technology pioneers and funders of Facebook and Google. After the Nobel announcement, Ohsumi talked with Adam Smith, chief scientific officer of Nobel Media, about the growth in the field. “When I started my work,” he said, “probably every year, 20 or less papers appeared on autophagy. Now more than 5 000 or something like that. It's a huge change within probably these 15 years or so.” What autophagy is and why it matters Autophagy, from the Greek words for self and eating, is often described using terms like “garbage” and “recycling.” It is, however, a vital service provided by the cell’s vesicular system for the entire organism. Autophagy breaks down organelles such as mitochondria, rescuing their components to construct other cell parts. Autophagy destroys pathogens. It sacrifices nonessential enzymes to supply amino acids for essential proteins. In praising Ohsumi, basic and applied scientists noted that autophagy touches on human conditions from cancer to cognitive impairment. Understanding this process is critical for understanding aging. Cell biologists said that when Ohsumi began, he certainly never expected that his research would have such diverse implications. For an example of how Ohsumi’s work advances basic and clinical research, see our report in this issue on work by Steven Goldman, including a study about Zika and autophagy. Earlier Nobel winners inspire a career change Ohsumi was born in 1945 in Japan and earned a PhD from the University of Tokyo. He did postdoctoral work at Rockefeller University in New York and the University of Tokyo, later moving to the National Institute for Basic Biology, Okazaki, Japan. He is now at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. He began his award-winning work, which is a combination of classic genetics and innovative cell biology, during his postdoctoral period. Ohsumi works on yeast, a common model organism with strengths in genetic manipulation but weaknesses in microscopy because of its small cell size. Ohsumi used yeast mutants that allowed him to use microscopy to view autophagy. He applied standard yeast genetic methods to identify genes that direct autophagy. He was not always a yeast geneticist, however. The Nobel Prize is “richly deserved” and “wonderful recognition” for Ohsumi, says S. Michal Jazwinski, director of the Tulane Center for Aging and professor of medicine at Tulane University. He adds that the award helps balan
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