The discovery of the molecular mechanisms behind “self eating” or autophagy — a process cells use to break down and recycle parts that are no longer needed — has been awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. Yoshinori Ohsumi of Tokyo Institute of Technology won the prize for his pioneering work on the topic.
Autophagy gone wrong can lead to diseases like cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s. Scientists knew that cells could break down unwanted materials, but they didn’t understand how the process worked or how important it was to healthy, functioning cells.
Ohsumi’s research in yeast in the early 1990s identified key genes involved in autophagy. Later, he studied the proteins encoded by these genes to understand how different pieces of the autophagy machinery worked inside the cell.
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