When microbiologist Yoshinori Ohsumi told his wife, Mariko, that he was awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine Monday evening, she didn’t believe him.

Her mischievous, sake-loving 71-year-old husband often teases her by telling an innocent lie.

“I thought he was trying to fool me again. I was really surprised when I found it was true,” she said during a news conference Tuesday with her husband at the Suzukakedai campus of the Tokyo Institute of Technology in Yokohama.

Flooded with congratulatory messages and subject to at least 30 media interviews, the honorary professor slept only three hours and his wife two hours before attending the news conference.

“It still hasn’t quite hit me yet. When I go home and start having a few drinks of sake, it will probably start feeling real,” Ohsumi said, drawing laughter from the packed small hall at the campus.

Ohsumi was awarded the Nobel for unlocking key mysteries of autophagy, the process by which cells in animals and plants get rid of damaged proteins as well as specialized structures called organelles that have become defunct.

Researchers hope that Ohsumi’s discovery will aid in the fight against diseases such as cancer, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s.

“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 its summary of the decision.

Interestingly, Ohsumi’s achievements in autophagy came through his work in yeast.

When yeast is starved of nutrition, it starts degrading its own proteins — a phenomenon Ohsumi observed in 1988 for the first time in the world through an optical microscope.

On Monday night, he said he 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 led to great progress in life sciences.

“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 said soon after the award was announced.

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

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 in 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 that science will be regarded as important in its own right, “not something that is developed for practical purposes only.”

If scientists are pressured to engage only in studies that can be “useful” for some practical purposes, “genuine basic science will become extinct,” Ohsumi said during the news conference Tuesday.

He said the government has provided sufficient funds for his own research. But overall, he believes the total amount of public funds allocated for fundamental scientific research, in particular the work of young scientists, is “absolutely insufficient.”

“I have a strong sense of crisis. Science in Japan will ‘hollow out’ ” unless support systems are established to help young scientists work on long-term research, he said.

“In that sense, Japanese universities are very poor,” he said.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.