ASM Member Yoshinori Ohsumi Wins Nobel Prize

Sept. 6, 2017

Today is a special day for ASM: yet again another of our members has been awarded the Nobel Prize!

I was glowing with pride when at the crack of dawn this morning, I learned that Yoshinori Ohsumi received this most prestigious recognition for his discoveries of the mechanisms of autophagy, a fundamental process in cells that is used to degrade and recycle cellular components—nature is extremely clever in coming up with solutions to make the best out of everything! Dr. Ohsumi did his main work in baker’s yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae), a unicellular eukaryote that has many properties of vertebrate cells and higher organisms. 

The concept of autophagy, which literally means “self eating,” emerged during the 1960s, when researchers noticed that cells could destroy their own content by enclosing it in membranes, forming sack-like vesicles that were transported to a recycling compartment, called the lysosome, for breakdown. This was a challenging phenomenon to study, so very little was known about this process until a series of brilliant experiments by Dr. Ohsumi in the early 1990s, using baker's yeast, identified the genes essential for autophagy. Dr. Ohsumi went forward to shed light on the underlying mechanisms for autophagy in yeast and showed that similar sophisticated machinery is used in our own cells.

Dr. Ohsumi’s discoveries opened the path to understanding the fundamental importance of autophagy in many physiological processes, such as in the adaptation to starvation or response to infection. For the past decade there has been an explosion of advances in autophagy research, making it one of the hottest fields in cell biology. Mutations in autophagy genes can cause disease, and the autophagic process is involved in several conditions, including cancer and neurological disease. Autophagy has been known for over 50 years, but its fundamental importance in physiology and medicine was only recognized after Yoshinori Ohsumi's paradigm-shifting research in the 1990s. 

Stand up tall and proud of our great ASM! I like to think that ASM, providing the forum for physical and digital sciences, also contributed to this remarkable achievement. This is why our work matters, and why we are deeply committed to promoting and advancing all microbial sciences—to facilitate successes like Dr. Ohsumi’s and the hundreds of thousands of others that every day advance the science, education, and profession of microbiology.

Yoshinori Ohsumi published some of his research in ASM journals

Author: Stefano Bertuzzi

Stefano Bertuzzi
Stefano Bertuzzi is the CEO of the American Society for Microbiology.