“Gnothi seauton” or “Know thyself,” said the Ancient Greeks; but they might have also said, “eat yourself.” For biologists, autophagy or “self-eating” is the process that cells use to recycle material inside the cell. It breaks down defective proteins and molecules, disposes of invading viruses and bacteria, provides an energy source when food is lacking and generally keeps cells fit and healthy. Problems in autophagy are implicated in cancer, aging, infectious disease and degenerative disorders.
This significance is now reflected in the award of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine to Yoshinori Ohsumi, a cell biologist now at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. Ohsumi carried out his pioneering work on autophagy in the late 1980s and 1990s, working with the “baker’s yeast” Saccharomyces cerevisiae. He first demonstrated that the process occurs in yeast as well as in more advanced organisms, then by manipulating yeast genetics was able to discover a series of genes involved in the process.
Wolf-Dietrich Heyer, professor and chair of microbiology and molecular genetics at UC Davis, called the prize a “wonderful recognition” of Ohsumi and his work. “This is a great day for science.”
“Dr. Ohsumi’s work also underlines the power of baker’s yeast as an experimental model system to discover and elucidate fundamental cellular processes,” said Heyer, who uses yeast to study mechanisms of DNA repair — another fundamental process that is implicated in cancer, aging and degenerative diseases.
Heyer noted that a former colleague from the Department of Microbiology and Molecular and Genetics, Dan Klionsky, collaborated with Ohsumi on a number of papers in the early days of autophagy.
The Nobel Prizes in Physics and Chemistry will be announced Oct. 4 and Oct. 5.