By Ankur Bhelawe.
The first Nobel Prize of 2016 was announced by The Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet on Monday, October 3, 2016. The 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Japanese cell biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi for his discoveries of mechanisms for autophagy.
Ohsumi, 71, was in his lab when he got a call from Thomas Perlmann, Secretary of the Nobel Committee. He admits the news put him in a state “shock”. Addressing reporters in Japanese during a press conference at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, Yoshinori said, “There is no higher honour than this.” He emphasised the fact that he did not know that research on autophagy would lead to some link with human longevity, and that was not why he began.
What is Autophagy?
The word Autophagy means “Self Eating” (from the Greek word auto meaning “self” and phagein, “to eat”). It is the process by which dysfunctional cellular components are destroyed and recycled inside the cell through the action of the cellular dustbins – lysosomes.
Ohsumi’s Award Winning Work
Though autophagy has been known to mankind for more than half a century, the quinquagenary of this knowledge’s existence was aggrandized by Ohsumi’s epoch defining research. In what the Nobel jury dubbed as “a series of brilliant experiments in the early 1990’s”, Ohsumi used baker’s yeast to identify the genes essential for autophagy. The 2016 Nobel Prize in medicine has been awarded to Yoshinori Ohsumi for his discoveries of the underlying mechanisms for autophagy.
Reactions Around the World
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe applauded Yoshinori on the phone. He said,
“(His research has) brought light to people struggling with intractable diseases like cancer and Parkinson’s disease….(The scientist’s achievement) makes me very proud as a Japanese citizen….This makes three years in a row that Japanese researchers have won (Nobels) and I’m so pleased that Japan can drive global innovation, including in biology and medicine, and contribute to the world.”
Juleen Zierath, Chair of the Nobel Committee for Physiology or Medicine, said
“Every day we need to replace about 200-300g of protein in our bodies. Every two to three months, every protein in our body turns over. Because of autophagy, these 200-300g of proteins are made. We are eating proteins every day, about 70g, but that’s not enough to take care of the requirement to make new proteins. Because of this machinery, we’re able to rely on some of our own proteins, maybe the damaged proteins or the long-lived proteins, and they are recycled with this sophisticated machinery so that we can sustain and we survive.”
David Rubinsztein, professor of molecular neurogenetics at Cambridge University, said
“I’m very happy he’s got this year’s Nobel prize, it’s very well deserved. There are many other people who’ve made important contributions in the field, but I’m very comfortable he’s the sole winner.”
A Telephone Interview with Yoshinori Ohsumi
Courtesy of the Nobel Foundation:
[Yoshinori Ohsumi]: Moshi, Moshi, Yoshinori speaking.
[Adam Smith]: Hello, Professor Ohsumi. My name is Adam Smith. I’m calling from the official website for the Nobel Prize.
YO: Ah ha, yeah..
AS: First of all, our congratulations on the award of the Nobel Prize.
YO: Thank you so much. Yes, I was surprised.
AS: [Laughs] How did you hear the news?
YO: I had a call from Thomas Perlmann.
AS: Yes, Secretary of the Nobel Committee, yes indeed.
YO: Yeah, Nobel Assembly.
AS: Nobel Assembly, yes. And where were you when you received the news?
YO: I was in my lab.
AS: And your first reaction?
YO: I heard that, single only, me! It was also a surprise for me.
AS: It’s true, because it’s rare that they give the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to just a single Laureate. What do you think this says about the role of the single researcher these days?
YO: That’s my real surprise because so many people are now working in the autophagy field.
AS: Autophagy is a huge area. But it’s not…
YO: Yeah, recently.
AS: Recently, exactly.
YO: Just recently I think.
AS: Very largely because of your work.
YO: Yes, it’s so, developed fast, yeah. When I started my work, probably every year 20 or less papers appeared on autophagy. Now more than 5,000 or something like that. It’s a huge change within probably these 15 years or so.
AS: A real explosion.
YO: I actually started more than 27 years ago.
AS: It was a good choice of field.
YO: Yeah, it was lucky. Yeah, yeast was a very good system and autophagy was a very good topic to work. Still we have so many questions. Even now we have more questions than when I started.
AS: Once again it underlines the power of yeast as an experimental model.
AS: You can do so much with yeast. And does it surprise you how similar yeast is to ourselves?
YO: I believe there are fundamental functions of the cells should be conserved from yeast to mammals. So that’s my belief. But of course vacuole is different from lysosome, but I thought that most fundamental mechanisms must be conserved. That was my assumption when I started my work.
AS: You sound as if you’re still in a slight state of shock.
YO: Yeah, mmm.
AS: And will you be coming to Stockholm in December to receive your award?
YO: Yeah, yeah.
AS: Wonderful. Well we very much look forward to meeting you then and to talking further.
AS: Thank you very much indeed for speaking to us now.
YO: Thanks so much.
AS: Congratulations again and we wish you a wonderful day.
Nobel Prize® is the registered trademark of the Nobel Foundation.
Post your reactions below!
This image was originally posted to Flickr by Adam Baker at
The image has been licensed for fair use by the creator under the Creative Commons licence – Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) . No changes have been made.
This image was posted by Embassy of Japan in Canada at