Yoshinori Ohsumi's dogged attention to detail credited for Nobel win

The cell biologist's accolade is Japan's third consecutive Nobel Prize since 2014.

  • Tim Hornyak

Yoshinori Ohsumi's perseverance credited for Nobel win

4 October 2016

Tim Hornyak

Tokyo Institute of Technology

Cell biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi has been awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize of Physiology for his work on autophagy, the process where cells break down and recycle their contents.

The cell biologist's accolade is Japan's third consecutive Nobel Prize since 2014.

Japanese cell biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi's Nobel Prize can be credited to his dogged determination to elucidate a basic mechanism in cells, long before its importance in human disease was understood, his collaborators say.

Ohsumi, an honorary professor at Tokyo Institute of Technology, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine on Monday for his groundbreaking work unravelling the mechanisms of autophagy, a cellular process in which proteins are broken down and consumed as the cell adapts to environmental conditions. The process helps cells stay healthy by keeping them stocked with essential building blocks.

“As a researcher, there is no higher honor than the Nobel Prize though I’ve received a number of accolades in recent years,” Ohsumi, 71, said at a press conference at Tokyo Tech. “As a child, my dream was to get a Nobel Prize, but I didn’t aim to win one when I began my research. I instead focused my attention on observing the behavior of cells and movement in yeast... I wanted to do what no-one else was doing.”

Early discoveries

Ohsumi and colleagues published studies in the early 1990s identifying genes responsible for autophagy. Recent research, however, has shown that autophagy plays a role in Parkinson’s disease and other neurodegenerative conditions as well as cancer.

“One thing I’d like to emphasize is that when I began the research, I didn’t think it would shed light on cancer or longevity,” Ohsumi told reporters. “I want people to understand that’s how basic research works. I want to emphasize the importance of fundamental research.”

The biologist has continued to examine the inner workings of yeast cells. A paper he and others published in 2015 in the Journal of Biological Chemistry described proteins in the yeast K. marxianus as broadly useful tools for the study of structural and biological aspects of autophagy.

Ohsumi appeared somewhat overwhelmed in front of a sea of cameras at Tokyo Tech He thanked the students and staff of his lab over the past 27 years, adding, “In biology, it’s not possible to accomplish such results alone.” The remark was typical of a man whom Tokyo Tech students described to Japanese media as detail-focused, friendly and down to Earth.

“He’s the type of scientist who’s driven to elucidate a phenomenon that he discovers,” longtime collaborator Noboru Mizushima, a biochemist at the University of Tokyo, said during an interview on Japanese public broadcaster NHK. “He’s a fundamental biologist and his passion enabled him to win the prize.”

Another collaborator, Tokyo Tech's Hitoshi Nakatogawa, said while autophagy was a known biological phenomenon before Ohsumi's research, identifying the genes essential for autophagy allowed Ohsumi and others to study the underlying mechanisms of the process.

A growing number of researchers have since entered the field to investigate autophagy in various organisms and the relevance to human diseases, said Nakatogawa.

Japan's impressive Nobel record

Ohsumi studied and taught for decades at the University of Tokyo, whose physicist Takaaki Kajita was awarded the Nobel Prize last year, shared with Canadian Arthur B. McDonald, for showing that neutrinos have mass. Ohsumi’s accolade is the third consecutive Nobel Prize for Japan since 2014 and brings the total number of Japanese laureates this century to 16, all in the natural sciences. But, there have been concerns that Japan’s science output is diminishing amid budget cuts to subsidies for national universities.

“We are expecting that there will be more Nobel Prize awardees in Japan even this year or in the future,” said Takashi Onishi, president of the Science Council of Japan (SCJ).

“SCJ, however, is worried about the declining tendency of scientific research funds and eventually the number of young researchers aspiring to be scientists. Therefore, SCJ would like to show how basic scientific research findings have been reflected in society in a useful manner and to ask political leaders to support scientific research activities further.”