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Japan’s newest Nobel laureate, Yoshinori Ohsumi, touts importance of fundamental research

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Staff Writer

Yoshinori Ohsumi, winner on Monday of the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, never dreamed that his study of yeast would someday “serve any practical purposes” when he started it alone 28 years ago.

But he never doubted the importance of such fundamental scientific studies, a belief that eventually achieved great progress in the life sciences that helped unlock key mysteries of autophagy, the process of removing unwanted proteins within a cell.

“I want to emphasize one thing here. When I started this study, I wasn’t convinced that this would lead to (answers for) any questions such as those concerning cancer and human longevity,” Ohsumi, an honorary professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, said during a news conference at the university Monday evening.

“I really hope people will understand that studies in fundamental sciences can achieve progress like this,” Ohsumi said.

His achievements in autophagy came through his work in yeast.

When yeast is starved for nutrition, it starts degrading its own proteins — a phenomenon Ohsumi observed with his own eyes through an optical microscope.

This process of autophagy can be widely seen in various creatures, including humans, plants and even microorganisms.

During the news conference, Ohsumi pointed out a human produces far more proteins every day inside the body than the amount that can be made from amino acids obtained from proteins he or she eats.

This shows the degradation and recycling of its own protein is a fundamental body function that supports our own life, he said.

“Thanks to Ohsumi and others following in his footsteps, we now know that autophagy controls important physiological functions where cellular components need to be degraded and recycled,” the Nobel committee said in a press release.

“Autophagy can rapidly provide fuel for energy and building blocks for renewal of cellular components, and is therefore essential for the cellular response to starvation and other types of stress,” it said.

During the news conference, Ohsumi lamented that in Japan today, scientists often face pressure to achieve quick results “that are useful for something,” such as those that can be used for practical medical treatments within mere years.

However, some achievements in fundamental scientific studies may not prove “useful” to other researchers for another 10 or 100 years, Ohsumi said.

He said he hopes science will be regarded as important in its own right, “not something that is developed for practical purpose only.”