The Announcements of Nobel Prizes represent current events that are changing our the world around us. This year’s announcement of an award to Yoshinori Ohsumi for his discovery of the genes and mechanisms relevant to autophagy (a recycling system within the cells) offers an excellent introduction to important cellular organelles most of us learn little about in school: vacuoloes and lysosomes.
The actual Press Release, available HERE, summarizes the approach Ohsumi used, over a course of nearly 30 years, to gain understanding of the autophagy process. Working with vacuoles in yeast (similar, but not identical, to lysosomes), he developed yeast mutants to disrupt the degradation process so that waste products would accumulate enough to observe under the microscope.
Next, Ohsumi used these mutants to help identify genes involved in autophagy. This allowed him to delineate the pathway by which stress signals initiate autophagy. Since many of these proteins were similar in plant and animal cells, the genes he identified were useful for expanding understanding of the process far beyond yeasts.
Because autophagy plays important roles in providing cellular energy, and also has roles in aging, and in diseases like Parkinson’s and diabetes, Ohsumi’s work has contributed to many new lines of study that promise better solutions for health and wellness.
His thirty year effort also helps reveal the level of complexity present within our cells, and the reason why developing and testing new medications represents a continuous journey. Like the stress induced signal pathways associated with Nrf proteins, the signal pathway that activates recycling of old or damaged cellular components via autophagy is heavily regulated. This regulation is necessary to ensure that healthy, functional mitochondria and other components don’t get thrown in the recycle bin (eg: the autophagosome).
Free Worksheet for STEM Teachers
The Nobel Assembly’s press release can be used to introduce students to autophagy, lysosome function, vacuole function, and topics related to scientific impacts in society. Students who are conditioned to expect instant gratification may marvel at recognition that it took decades of meticulous effort to secure a Nobel Prize.
Science teachers reading this blog are encouraged to assign the Nobel Assembly’s press release, perhaps as a close reading or purposeful annotation activity, to high school biology students. Links to the press release can also be broadcast to students using tools like SchoolWay. The worksheet below can be printed out and used to guide discussion following reading. The reading may also be appropriate for undergraduate college students in introductory biology classes.Nobel Assembly Press Release Discussion Worksheet
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