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Yoshinori Ohsumi

Updated: 2017-11-01

The 71-year old Japanese scientist Yoshinori Ohsumi said he was quite surprised at the news that he won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine on Oct 3, 2016. He was in the lab at that moment.

His best-known achievement is to elucidate the molecular mechanisms and physiological functions of autophagy. He said he chose scientific research as his career because of the precept he has always believed in -- "doing what others have not done."

Yoshinori Ohsumi's scientific career

In 1963, Ohsumi was enrolled by the University of Tokyo and decided to study Cell Biology. At the end of 1974, he worked as a postdoc researcher at Rockefeller University under Gerald Edelman, who had won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1972. Ohsumi also started his research on yeast there.

Ohsumi returned to Japan to work as a research associate at the University of Tokyo at the end of 1977. He did not have his own lab until he was promoted to an associate professor in 1988. He focused on the dissociation function of yeast vacuole, and shortly thereafter discovered the autophagy in yeast by light microscopy and electron microscopy. With the help of the yeast system, Ohsumi screened the mutants with autophagy defects. At that time, his team identified 15 genes essential to starvation-induced autophagy in the first screening and began cloning them. It was the discovery of those autophagy genes in yeast that opened a new chapter for modern autophagy research.

Later, Ohsumi worked in Japan's National Institute of Basic Biology and the Tokyo Institute of Technology doing in-depth research on the molecular mechanism of autophagy genes. 

Ohsumi was considered a “godfather” in autophagy for his pioneering achievements in the field.

He was granted the Fujihara Award, the Japan Academy Prize and the Asahi Prize in 2005, 2006 and 2008. In 2012 he received the Kyoto Prize and he won Canada’s Gairdner Foundation International Award in 2015.

Being a patient researcher on fundamental studies

Autophagy is like the cells' cleaner: it removes the rubbish in cells and keeps them healthy. However, autophagy abnormality causes many diseases. What Ohsumi did was discover the molecular mechanism of autophagy so as to treat diseases.

Ohsumi had to be quite patient as he was doing basic research even though it was an interesting subject. There was no shortcut to his success; it required constant and persevering efforts.

Ohsumi returned to the University of Tokyo in 1977 as a research associate. He was appointed Lecturer there in 1986, and promoted to Associate Professor in 1988, when he was 43 years old. He then began the research that eventually made him a Nobel laureate. He became a professor after he went to the National Institute of Basic Biology in 1996, nearly 20 years after his return to Japan.

In a talk with Zhang Hong, a researcher at the Institute of Biophsics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Ohsumi said he did not need to prove himself through having won a Nobel Prize, since he had won so many others, but the Prize was important to Japan, since Japan attaches so much importance to translational medicine rather than basic medicine. He hoped his winning the Nobel Prize would make people pay attention to basic science and change Japan's academic paper rating system, which in his view is not good for the development of the country’s scientific research.

“He himself did not care about the honors, his papers were mostly published in ordinary magazines,” said Zhang Hong, adding that Ohsumi insisted that papers based on solid research results would catch people’s attention no matter where they were published.

“Young scientists nowadays like making research to serve humans, and think it requires studies on humans rather than yeast or mice. However, you can answer the most fundamental and most important questions about the nature of life through the studies of yeast,” said Ohsumi. He encouraged young scientists to focus on human needs in their research after he received the Kyoto Prize in 2012. But he said it’s hard to define what might serve humans and gave nuclear power as an example.

“My research can explain autophagy because I have been working on yeast and can observe them under an electron microscope,” he noted.

Ohsumi used the prize money of the Kyoto Prize to make a barrel of whisky, and then wrote "Learn from yeast" on each bottle.

In giving young scientists advice, Ohsumi said “Doing what others haven’t done and doing what you are really interested in, it’s not easy to do research, but if you are fascinated with a subject, you’ll definitely overcome all the obstacles, even though your work doesn’t win recognition for the moment.”

Ohsumi and China

In recent years, Ohsumi has come to China almost every year to host seminars on autophagy and attend other activities. In 2015, the Biophysical Society of China granted him the Shitsan Pai International Award to recognize his contribution to China's scientific research.

Ohsumi is always willing to help Chinese young researchers with their studies. “He not only often provides research materials, but also gives instruction on their thesis; he has a sunny disposition and often invites us to discuss academic topics while having a drink after a meeting,” Liu Wei said.

Since autophagy has been widely used in the medical field, research on the subject has experienced explosive growth in recent years and a number of young scientists emerging in China are respectful of their debt to Yoshinori Ohsumi.