The Nobel Laureate, Professor Ohsumi’s lab was filled with freedom and curiosity
School of Agriculture, Meiji University
The Nobel Laureate, Prof. Ohsumi’s humility in the lab
Our research was of course conducted under the theme of autophagy. But the lab had distinctive diversity rarely seen in Japan. Prof. Ohsumi was an expert in yeast, some researchers using animals, others, plants. My expertise is in plants, but I learned a lot from doing research in such environment. My framework of thought was slightly different from that of other researchers using yeast or animals. Because plants take longer time to grow than yeast or animals, the methods and sense of time as well as the attitude in research naturally differ. Being surrounded by researchers with different expertise, we were able to influence each other in various ways, finding new perspectives and being inspired with different ways of thinking. I think the freedom Prof. Ohsumi gave us created such a lab. He never forced his ideas to us. He let even young researchers and students do their own work. As a researcher, Prof. Ohsumi investigates to the very bottom of even a simple question. I personally learned a lot from his attitude towards research. I will always treasure having worked in a lab led by a Noble Laureate.
Autophagy: the ingenious system of organisms
The concept of such a mechanism emerged during the 1960’s, when researchers discovered accumulation of degrading organelles and proteins enclosed in a membrane vesicle in a mouse cell under starvation. It was later named autophagy (self-eating), but scientists deadlocked over its molecular mechanisms. It was Prof. Ohsumi who broke through this deadlock, after almost half a century since the discovery of this autophagy phenomenon.
Still, as Prof. Ohsumi says, the underlying mechanisms of autophagy is not completely elucidated. For example, when autophagy is disrupted in a mouse, the mouse dies right after its birth, because it cannot drink milk. The lack of clearing unwanted proteins and/or organelles probably causes unnecessary build-up in the mouse’s brain cells, resulting in disruption of normal brain function. Restoring autophagy only in brain cells enables the mouse to drink milk and grow. However, many defects still arise, causing the mouse to die early. We know for sure that autophagy has an essential role for the survival of organisms. But we do not know why blocking autophagy causes such loss of function. Our curiosity will solve this mystery. As human beings, such phenomena caused by ingenious systems of organisms enthrall us. We crave to understand the underlying mechanisms.
Curiosity is the motivation for research
For example, plants let their own leaves wither so that they can transfer the nutrition from their leaves to the seeds to pass their life on to the next generation. A few years ago, we discovered that autophagy contributes greatly to this recycling system. However, even when autophagy was disrupted in plants, they did not immediately die like a mouse would. The plants survived and were confirmed to be capable of even producing seeds to turn the generation cycle. This result was unexpected for us. Because plants cannot move and need to adapt to environmental stress, they may be equipped with multiple back-up systems, avoiding dependency on a single system like autophagy. We desire to understand such mechanisms. The pure interest and curiosity are the biggest motivation for researchers in basic science.
Basic science is fun and important
From this perspective, I am glad that basic science is drawing increasing attention because of Prof. Ohsumi’s Nobel Prize. I hope this triggers deeper understanding of how intriguing and important basic science is. If general public starts to actively support scientific research using systems like Crowdfunding, Japan may grow into an outstanding country with a higher level of science.
* The contents of articles on M's Opinion are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.
Associate Professor, School of Agriculture, Meiji University
Plant molecular and cellular biology, plant physiology
Elucidation of the molecular mechanisms and functions of autophagy, an intracellular system for self-degradation, in plants’ adaption to the environment
Main books and papers:
◆ "Organ-specific quality control of plant peroxisomes is mediated by autophagy.", J. Cell Sci. (2014)
◆ "Shokubutsu niokeru otofaji no igi to yakuwari" (The significance and roles of autophagy in plants), KAGAKU TO SEIBUTSU. (2014)
◆ "Beginning to understand autophagy, an intracellular self-degradation system in plants.", Plant Cell Physiol. (2012)
◆ "Autophagy negatively regulates cell death by controlling NPR1-dependent salicylic acid signaling during senescence and the innate immune response in Arabidopsis.", Plant Cell (2009)
◆ "Processing of ATG8s, ubiquitin-like proteins, and their deconjugation by ATG4s are essential for plant autophagy.", Plant Cell (2004)