Khalil Thirlaway, Naked Scientist
This year, the Nobel Prize for Medicine goes to research done on how cells recycle, also known as autophagy. Khalil Thirlaway reports...
Khalil - This year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has gone to Yoshinori Oshumi, who identified the mechanism behind one of the key processes going on inside all of our cells through a series of experiments in his lab at the University of Tokyo.
Living cells undergo a constant cycle of breaking down old or worn out parts and recycling the building blocks to make new components for the cell. This process is known as “autophagy”, from the Greek meaning “self-eating”.
This constant renewal protects the cell from damage as well as wear and tear. Problems with autophagy, which can occur because of aging, lead to damage not being repaired, and a build up of potentially dangerous debris inside the cell. This has been linked to a range of problems, including Parkinson’s disease, diabetes and cancer.
Oshumi wanted to find out how this crucial process is controlled, and carried out a series of experiments to find out. He exposed yeast cells to a chemical which introduces random mutations, changes to the DNA instructions inside the cell, and identified those cells which could no longer carry out autophagy. By looking for the genes that had been mutated in these cells, he identified the genes responsible for controlling the process. In follow up experiments he went on to identify the proteins encoded by these genes, which actually carry out autophagy.
Oshumi showed us just how important this cellular recycling system is, and how it works on both a genetic and molecular level. Important medical research into new medicines for a raft of serious conditions is based on his work uncovering the hidden mechanisms behind one of life’s most important housekeeping functions.