Japanese cell biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine this morning for his discoveries of mechanisms for autophagy. In simple terms, autophagy is the physiological process that deals with the destruction of cells, thereby allowing for the recycling of new cellular content. The process was first observed in the 1960s and built upon by Ohsumi in experiments in the 1990s when he “used baker’s yeast to identify genes essential for autophagy,” according to the Nobel Assembly.
The reason Ohsumi’s work matters is because “disruptions in autophagy are thought to underlie many conditions, including cancer, infections, neurological diseases, and aging,” according to the New York Times.
[Photo and description from Nobel Assembly]
“Our cells have different specialized compartments. Lysosomes constitute one such compartment and contain enzymes for digestion of cellular contents. A new type of vesicle called autophagosome was observed within the cell. As the autophagosome forms, it engulfs cellular contents, such as damaged proteins and organelles. Finally, it fuses with the lysosome, where the contents are degraded into smaller constituents. This process provides the cell with nutrients and building blocks for renewal.”