'Self-Eating' Cells Nab Medicine Nobel for Japanese Scientist

Yoshinori Ohsumi honored for groundbreaking work in autophagy
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 3, 2016 5:11 AM CDT
'Self-Eating' Cells Nab Medicine Nobel for Japanese Scientist
In this July 2016 photo, Japanese scientist Yoshinori Ohsumi is seen at the Tokyo Institute of Technology campus in Yokohama, south of Tokyo.   (Akiko Matsushita/Kyodo News via AP)

Samples of baker's yeast helped propel a biologist from Japan into the winner's slot for this year's Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, the BBC reports. Yoshinori Ohsumi was announced as the recipient of this year's prize for his work involving autophagy, a process in the body that acts as a junkyard salvager of sorts: As explained by the Guardian, old cells are found and any useful material "stripped out" to either create energy or produce new cells. Understanding kinks in this process means a greater understanding of what causes certain diseases such as cancer, Parkinson's, and Type 2 diabetes, among others. Not much headway had been made in autophagy—taken from the Greek for "self-eating," per a press release—until Ohsumi got to work on it in a bunch of early-'90s experiments in which he used baker's yeast to identify 15 genes behind the process, per the Washington Post.

And it's a delicate process, whereby too little of it can result in aging and related diseases, but too much of it can lead to cancerous growths. "Ohsumi's discoveries led to a new paradigm in our understanding of how the cell recycles its content," the Nobel Assembly says, per the New York Times. And Ohsumi, currently a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, didn't seem to mind toiling away in a field that wasn't exactly deemed the sexiest. "I am not very competitive, so I always look for a new subject to study, even if it is not so popular," he told the Journal of Cell Biology in 2012. Coming up this week: the Nobel Prizes in physics, chemistry, and peace; next week, the economic science award (Oct. 10) and literature (Oct. 13). (If you missed the Ig Nobels, we've got your "Goat Man" right here.)

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