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The cannibal cell research that won the Nobel Prize in medicine, explained in 300 words

Yoshinori Ohsumi attends press conference at Tokyo Institute of Technology on October 3, 2016 in Tokyo, Japan.
Yoshinori Ohsumi attends press conference at Tokyo Institute of Technology on October 3, 2016 in Tokyo, Japan.
Ken Ishii/Getty Images

This year's Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine goes to Yoshinori Ohsumi, a 71-year-old Japanese scientist who described the machinery and genetics behind autophagy, an essential part of basic cellular function.

The word autophagy — pronounced aw-toff-a-gee— comes from the Greek word for "self-eating." It’s the process where cells act like cannibals and break down parts of themselves for reuse.

Scientists have slowly come to understand the complex orchestra inside cells — the basic structures of life — and the parts each "instrument" plays. In his work, Ohsumi built on research by Belgian cytologist and biochemist (and fellow Nobel winner) Christian de Duve and others to illustrate exactly what autophagy is and why it’s so important for the survival of all life on Earth.

nobel autophagy

Our cells have different parts. Nobel winner Yoshinori Ohsumi helped describe how a vesicle in cells — called autophagosome — can cannibalize the cell's contents to carry out fundamental functions, such as fighting infections and generating the fuel that helps the cells renew and survive stressful situations like starvation.

Through a series of yeast experiments in the 1990s, Ohsumi — now a professor emeritus at the Tokyo Institute of Technology in Japan — showed cells consuming themselves to make fuel for their renewal, fight off infections with bacteria and viruses, and generate energy under stressful situations (including starvation).

Autophagy also breaks down damaged proteins and organelles, which protect against the negative effects of organisms’ aging. These discoveries, according to the Nobel Committee, "opened the path to understanding the fundamental importance of autophagy in many physiological processes."

For human health, Ohsumi’s work has helped researchers understand how mutations in autophagy-linked genes or interruptions can lead to diseases like cancer, Parkinson's disease, and Type 2 diabetes. Researchers are building on his insights to create treatments that respond to autophagy in these and other diseases.

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