Autophagy Pioneer Wins Nobel

Biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi is honored for his discoveries on the mechanisms of cellular recycling.

By | October 3, 2016

TOKYO INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGYYoshinori Ohsumi, an honorary professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, has won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Ohsumi is recognized for his discoveries on the mechanisms of autophagy, the process by which a cell recycles unnecessary components. “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,” according to the Nobel Foundation’s announcement.

The prize “is a tremendous acknowledgement of this important pathway, which many people haven’t heard of, and it will highlight the importance of the pathway in human diseases [including] cancer and neurodegeneration,” Ohsumi’s friend, Sharon Tooze of the Francis Crick Institute in London, told The Scientist.

First identified as a survival pathway in yeast, dysregulation of autophagy is linked to everything from chemotherapy resistance to amyloid-β aggregation in Alzheimer’s disease.

Maho Hamasaki, an associate professor at Osaka University Graduate School of Medicine, told The Scientist that her former graduate advisor is well deserving of the award. “He just wants to do basic science, not for applications or to get money,” she said. “He’s just a pure scientist.”

Also in recognition of his achievements in autophagy-related research, Ohsumi won the 2015 International Prize for Biology, the 2012 Kyoto Prize in Basic Sciences, and a 2006 Japan Academy Prize, among other honors.

After earning a PhD from the University of Tokyo, Ohsumi completed postdoctoral research, first on mammalian embryology and then on DNA duplication in yeast in Gerald Edelman’s lab at Rockefeller University in New York City. Upon returning to Japan, he set up his own lab back at the University of Tokyo and began research on yeast vacuoles.

“I started out with a love of the microscope,” Ohsumi said in a 2012 interview. “Vacuoles are the only organelle visible under the light microscope, and I often observed them. My observations under the microscope were the main reason I was able to discover these hitherto unknown functions of vacuoles.”

Those unknown functions, he came to discover, were autophagy.

In a seminal experiment, Ohsumi disrupted degradation in the vacuole, observing autophagosomes piling up in the cell. According to the Nobel Prize press release, “the results were striking! . . . Ohsumi’s experiment proved that authophagy exists in yeast cells. But even more importantly, he now had a method to identify and characterize key genes involved this process.” (See “How Autophagy Works” and “The Enigmatic Membrane,” The Scientist, February 2012.)

Just last month, the New York Academy of Sciences honored Ohsumi with the Dr. Paul Janssen Award. Beth Levine, who studies autophagy at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, said the autophagy community considered Ohsumi’s discoveries Nobel-worthy, even before he received honors for his work.

“He’s clearly made pioneering discoveries in elucidating the molecular machinery required for mediating this cell-biology process we call autophagy in yeast and defining the biochemical mechanisms,” Levine, who has collaborated with Ohsumi, told The Scientist. “I think it already has had a tremendous impact” on understanding human physiology and pathophysiology.

Eiichiro Fukusaki, who studies metabolomics at Osaka University in Japan and recently collaborated with Ohsumi, said his colleague truly enjoys doing science for discovery’s sake. “Autophagy is very much applicable to cancer mechanisms and other diseases, but Professor Ohsumi was not interested in such applications. He has stayed on basic biology.”  

Outside the lab, “he’s crazily great,” said Hamasaki. “He’s so friendly, easygoing . . . a good drinker, a really fun person to be around. He can mingle with anybody, that’s the charm.”

Tooze echoed these sentiments, calling Ohsumi a “gentleman and an outstanding mentor.”

Update (October 3): This article has been updated to include comments from Beth Levine.

Tracy Vence contributed reporting.

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Avatar of: James V. Kohl

James V. Kohl

Posts: 481

October 3, 2016

...autophagy, the process by which a cell recycles unnecessary components. “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...

How much more can be done without claiming that the energy-dependent changes link natural selection to codon optimality and codon optimality links fixed RNA-mediated amino acid substitutions to the stability of all cell types in all living genera via supercoiled DNA. The supercoiled DNA links ecological variation to ecological adaptation via the physiology of reproduction, which is the only way I know to prevent virus-driven energy theft from being transgenerationally inherited as it is with the Zika virus.

Avatar of: James V. Kohl

James V. Kohl

Posts: 481

Replied to a comment from James V. Kohl made on October 3, 2016

October 20, 2016

Research delivers ground-breaking insights into evolution by studying transcription termination in archaea

From the title above, would anyone recognize that this is a second report on the research reported in The Scientist on August 1, 2016 as Wanted: Transcriptional Regulators

The journal article was published on April 8, 2016. See Term-seq reveals abundant ribo-regulation of antibiotics resistance in bacteria

Conserved molecular mechanisms of energy-dependent autophagy are obviously the link from virus-driven nutrient-dependent pheromone-controlled antibiotic resistance in bacteria to supercoiled DNA, which protects human infants from the transgenerational epigenetic inheritance of Zika virus damage. 

But, in Research delivers ground-breaking insights into evolution by studying transcription termination in archaea we are told that...

In order to describe the diversity of life, science differentiates, for example, between the plant and animal kingdoms.

What differences does science introduce to remove the molecular mechanisms of autophagy from archea before linking them to cell type differenitation in all other living genera?

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