Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Medicine Nobel for Intelligent Recycling in Our Cells

Autophagy. Image courtesy of eb billard, Public Domain.

Joel Kontinen

Humans did not invent recycling. We see it in the life cycle of a butterfly. An intelligent process uses the moth’s cells to build an entirely different creature – a butterfly.

And our cells do something similar. They break down content that is no longer useful and instead of throwing it away, use it to repair existing cells or build new ones.

This year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been awarded to Yoshinori Ohsumi, a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, for his work on the mechanisms of autophagy.

Autophagy refers to self-eating. It is a combination of two Greek words, auto, ‘self’ and phagein, ‘to eat’. New Scientist gives us some background facts:

Autophagy was first proposed as a concept in the 1960s, when it was observed that a cell can destroy its own contents by packaging it up into membranes called vesicles that are transported to a recycling part of the cell where it is degraded. This process rapidly provides fuel for energy and building blocks for the renewal of cell components.”

Professor Ohsumi discovered that authophagy does more than this. In an interview conducted in 2012, he said:

As research into autophagy has expanded, it has become clear that it is not simply a response to starvation. It also contributes to a range of physiological functions, such as inhibiting cancer cells and aging, eliminating pathogens and cleaning the insides of cells.”

Autophagy is not the only intelligent process we have for getting rid of cells that are no longer useful but can cause harm by their longevity. There’s another one that’s called apoptosis or programmed cell death.

In 2002 the researchers who identified genes that control it were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for their discovery.

In recent years, several Nobel prizes have been awarded to researchers who have shown how wonderfully our cells are designed. In 2009, for instance three ribosome researchers shared the Nobel prize in Chemistry.


Thomson, Helen. 2016. Medicine Nobel Prize goes to discovery of how our cells recycle. New Scientist (3 October).