October 03, 2016
Dr. Yoshinori Ohsumi has won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his groundbreaking work on autophagy in yeast. This is the process whereby cells recycle their worn out parts or where a cell, like Mobius, the snake eating its own tail, eats less essential bits of itself to stay alive during times of starvation. Think Scarlett O’Hara using her drapes as a dress in Gone With the Wind (or Carol Burnett’s hilarious parody).
Like many, many Nobel Prizes in the past, Ohsumi’s work uncovered basic biological properties using a model organism. In this case he used our favorite lab workhorse, the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, to piece together the steps involved in the recycling of a cell’s own internal structures.
And like many other basic biological studies, this one has important medical applications. In this case the two most obvious are chemotherapy resistance and amyloid-β aggregation in Alzheimer’s disease, but it isn’t restricted to just these two. For example, a specialized form of autophagy that targets damaged mitochondria, mitophagy, may not be working well in people with Parkinson’s disease.
The key to Ohsumi’s work was finding a way to disrupt this process in yeast so that he could find the important genes underlying autophagy using the awesome power of yeast genetics (#APOYG!). It turns out that this is trickier than it might seem because yeast and their autophagosomes, the little vesicles that surround and encase the bits to be degraded, are very small and so hard to see. In fact, they are so small that there was some question about whether yeast even had this process!
If yeast did, then it would take place in the vacuole, the recycling center in yeast. The equivalent organelle in people is the lysosome.
To see if autophagy happens in yeast, Ohsumi starved yeast that had vacuoles but couldn’t digest anything. The idea was that there would be a buildup of autophagosomes in the vacuole because the yeast would be desperately trying to eat itself but had no way to digest what it ate. He indeed saw that these poor yeast developed huge vacuoles bloated with autophagosomes.
Dr. Yoshinori Ohsumi now had the makings of a yeast screen! “All” he had to do was to look for mutants that didn’t form giant vacuoles under these conditions with the logic being that if you knocked out autophagy, you wouldn’t get a buildup of autophagosomes.
The rest, as they say, is history. Ohsumi and his lab managed to tease out the subtleties of this vital cellular process using good old baker’s yeast. What other nuggets of knowledge about ourselves will we pry out of this most useful of eukaryotes? I can’t wait to see what it reveals about us next!
Other Nobel Prizes have been awarded in recent years for work in yeast:
by Barry Starr, Ph.D., Director of Outreach Activities, Stanford Genetics