JAPANESE cell biologist, Tokyo Institute of Technology’s Institute of Innovative Research professor Yoshinori Ohsumi, was awarded with this honour for his discovery of mechanisms for autophagy. Autophagy, from the Greek words auto (self ) and phagein (to eat), is explained as “self-eating”, a concept that surfaced in the 1960s when scientists discovered that cells could destroy their own content by enclosing it in membranes, creating sack-like vesicles that were then “recycled”. Little was known about this process until Ohsumi’s early 1990s experiments – using baker’s yeast to identify genes essential for autophagy – he elucidated underlying mechanisms for autophagy in yeast and showed that our cells worked similarly. What this means to the human race is a new understanding of how cells recycle content, which could lead to physiological advances for example 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 diseases.
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