Before this edition closed, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced the winners of this year’s Nobel Prize in three categories. In Medicine or Physiology the winner was Japanese biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi, professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, Japan, for his contributions in elucidating the mechanisms of autophagy, a biological process in which cells digest and renew themselves, while they eliminate and resupply proteins. In the past this type of selective self-destruction of intercellular components was seen merely as a kind of cell death, but then biologists began to view it as a sophisticated survival trick for organisms. More recently, with the possibility of accelerating or delaying this process, autophagy has become a promising strategy in the fight against diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease. Ohsumi’s studies picked up steam in 1988 when he set up his laboratory at the University of Tokyo, from where he obtained his PhD and went on to work until the mid-1990s. He showed that autophagy is controlled by a cascade of proteins and protein complexes, each regulating a specific stage of the formation of what are known as autophagasomes. Through Ohsumi’s contributions, today we know that autophagy is essential for cells to function properly.
Three British scientists based in the United States won the prize for Physics: David Thouless at the University of Washington; Michael Kosterlitz, at Brown University; and Duncan Haldane at Princeton University. They discovered the bases of what became known as topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter. Topology is the branch of mathematics that describes properties that remain intact when a shape is altered gradually. The theory showed that unexpected regularities in the behavior of matter are behind phase transitions, such as from solid to liquid, and of materials with extreme properties such as superconductors. This knowledge is helpful in researching new phases of matter, which may have applications in technology, such as in quantum computers.
In Chemistry, the winners were Fraser Stoddart from Northwestern University in the United States, Bernard Feringa from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, and Jean-Pierre Sauvage from the University of Strasbourg in France. They received the award for their contributions to the production of molecular association systems used to form nanomechanical systems: “molecular machines.” They developed molecular systems with controllable movements, capable of performing specific activities when stimulated electrically or with light.Republish