A Japanese Scientist Has Won A Nobel For His Work On How Cells Eat Themselves

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Yoshinori Ohsumi's work on the process of "autophagy", the process by which cells eat their own interior parts, has been rewarded with a Nobel prize.
posted on Oct. 3, 2016, at 6:08 a.m.
Tom Chivers
Tom Chivers
BuzzFeed Science Writer

Nobel Assembly / Via nobelprize.org
Yoshinori Ohsumi, a Japanese cell biologist, has won the 2016 Nobel prize for physiology and medicine for his work on "autophagy".

Autophagy, which means "self-eating", is the process by which the body's cells destroy and recycle their own components. Cells are filled with smaller parts, called organelles, which perform specialised tasks – for instance, mitochondria, which provide energy for the cell's actions. When these parts become damaged or useless, they are broken down into their component chemicals, and then reused.

Nobel Assembly / Via nobelprize.org
The idea of autophagy was first proposed in the 1950s but Ohsumi's work in the early 1990s revealed some of the genes and processes involved – specifically, how one kind of organelle, called a lysosome, was involved in enveloping and consuming other parts of the cell. He did this by breeding yeast cells, and then deliberately starving them so that they began to break down their own organelles to save energy. He found that the cell filled with small sacs, which he called autophagosomes, which transported parts for autophagy into the yeast cells' equivalent of the lysosome.

Later, he also identified genes responsible for the development of the autophagosome.

When autophagy goes wrong, it is linked with to severe health problems, including Parkinson's, cancer and diabetes.

Ohsumi's work led to a sudden explosion in scientific interest in autophagy, with thousands more papers published on the subject in the wake of his research.