Humble Beginnings: The 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

Illustration by Anna Deen

Illustration by Anna Deen

When Alfred Nobel suffered a stroke and drew his last breath in 1896, it was a surprise to the world that the infamous weapons manufacturer and hated dynamite inventor had signed into his will that his amassed fortune would go toward establishing a prize for the most distinguished scientists, peacemakers, and writers around the world. But with his passing, his will was nonetheless enacted, and five years later, the first Nobel Prizes were awarded, the categories of which were Physics, Chemistry, Literature, Peace, and Physiology or Medicine. Over a century later, the Nobel Assembly for Physiology or Medicine still gathers annually in a nondescript, brick building on the campus of the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden to select the award recipient announced every October. An honor only granted to 211 scientists and doctors over the past 115 years, the name bears great distinction for researchers who strive to make discoveries about the functions of the body and its diseases on the cellular level. This year’s Nobel Prize in this field went to Japanese professor Yoshinori Ohsumi, a cell biologist known for his intensive work on the mechanisms of autophagy at the Tokyo Institute of Technology.

Autophagy, which is derived from the Greek words for “self-eating,” is a cellular process involved with degradation and recycling of old and damaged intracellular material including proteins, organelles, and accumulated lipids. Secondarily, it is a mechanism involved in the clearing of pathogenic microorganisms from the cell. The autophagic process consists of first the isolation of materials targeted for degradation in a lipid-bilayer vesicle called the autophagosome. Then, the autophagosome fuses with an acidic lysosome that can break down those materials. Thus, autophagy plays a huge role in cellular aging and function.

The process of autophagy had been discovered in the early 1960s by Belgian biochemist Christian de Duve, but not much was known about its process or role in disease until the 1990s when Professor Ohsumi studied it in yeast cells. Ohsumi’s primary experiment involved verifying that autophagy could occur in yeast, which led to the creation of a model in which he could study what factors affect autophagosome formation. Vacuoles, a storage organelle in plants, acts as a lysosome in yeast, and by disabling some lysosomal genes in the yeast, Ohsumi was able to observe the buildup of autophagosomes in the vacuoles, which was groundbreaking because it served as a platform on which further autophagy research could be built upon. He was able to prove that autophagy is a mechanism that exists in yeast cells, and he could easily and visually identify autophagosome formation in the vacuoles of these genetically modified yeasts. Then, by mutating parts of yeast genes randomly to disable certain genes and by finding yeasts where autophagosomes could not form due to those disabled genes, he was able to pinpoint various genes now called ATG genes that regulate the process of autophagy. Ohsumi soon identified mammalian homologs which paralleled those yeast genes so that they could be studied in more advanced organisms, and through the identification of these genes, huge leaps in autophagy research ensued.

Recently, autophagy has blossomed into an extensive area of cell biology research, with tens of thousands of related research articles published since the 2000s. Ohsumi’s choice as the Nobel laureate this year comes twenty years after his most important discoveries. The world took some time to realize the tremendous impact his work had on the field of cell biology, as his work served as a stepping stone to lead to more advanced research. Ohsumi had essentially created an entire new field of research, one that spans several biological disciplines. Being the essential cellular process it is, autophagy is involved in a plethora of diseases spanning various biological areas of focus, such as atherosclerosis (a cardiovascular disease), Parkinson’s disease (a neurological disease), and type 2 diabetes (an inflammatory disease).

From a wider perspective, Japanese research has become a large part of the scientific community since Ohsumi’s pioneering research in the 1990s. Even ever since the 1980s, Japan has invested much of its economy into science and technology research—up to 2.9 percent of the GNP—and employs hundreds of thousands of researchers in its workforce. The Japanese government has encouraged original work and private cooperation in scientific research to compete with Western countries. Being the 25th Japanese person to receive a Nobel Prize, Ohsumi is just one example of the increasing international prominence Japan has in STEM fields.


Undergrad at WashU studying bio on a pre-med track || From Los Angeles, CA || Interested in current social issues in medicine especially relevant to both LA and STL

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