Milestones in Science: Recycling Processes in Cells
What can scientists learn from studying yeast?
Yeast is an extremely popular organism for biologists to study because of its surprising biological similarities to humans.
Like human cells, yeast cells are eukaryotic, meaning that their DNA is contained in chromosomes within a cell nucleus. Yeast cells can survive in a variety of different environments, which is important when scientists want to examine how cells respond to treatments and stimulus. And yeast cells divide very similarly to human cells, making them an ideal organism for many genetic studies.
Research in yeast has led to important discoveries. In 2016, for example, Japanese biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work studying autophagy in yeast.
Autophagy in yeast
“Autophagy” comes from a Greek word meaning “self-devouring,” and refers to recycling processes in cells.
Although autophagy was discovered before the beginning of Ohsumi’s career, it is through Ohsumi’s extensive body of research on the subject that we understand how it works and why it’s important.
Autophagy can help cells break down cellular components that are malfunctioning, creating energy and basic building blocks to conduct repairs. The process can also help fight off bacterial and viral invaders, and disruptions to autophagy have been identified in diseases ranging from Parkinson’s disease, type 2 diabetes, osteoarthritis, and cancer.
Autophagy is not yet a major target for the treatment of disease, and there is still a great deal of research to be conducted to identify the importance of its various functions. However, Ohsumi’s research lays the groundwork for future advances, and it was the development of a fundamental understanding of autophagy that led to his 2016 Nobel Prize.