Image of autophagy courtesy of the National Cancer Institute

The Inamori Foundation announced this year’s Kyoto Prizes today. Dr. Yoshinori Ohsumi won the prize in Basic Science, and Dr. Ivan Edward Sutherland won the prize in Advanced Technology.

Ohsumi, a professor at the Frontier Research Center of the Tokyo Institute of Technology, won for his pioneering work on autophagy. From the Greek for “self-eating,” autophagy is a process by which cells break down and recycle their own proteins. Cells do this for a variety of reasons: to remove harmful bacteria, as a response to starvation, and to repair damaged cell components. Scientists now believe that reduced autophagy is involved in aging and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzhieimer’s. Ohsumi was the first scientist to observe autophagy in yeast, and he subsequently identified several genes necessary for autophagy.

Sutherland, a visiting scientist at Portland State University, was awarded the prize for his work on computer graphics, visual simulations, computer aided design (CAD), computer modeling, and virtual reality. His 1963 computer program Sketchpad is the predecessor of many modern graphics-based applications. With Sketchpad, users created graphics with a light pen and could then manipulate lengths and angles in their designs. It demonstrated that human-computer interaction could be used for both technical and artistic purposes. Sutherland’s work on the timing of computer circuits was the subject of an article in Scientific American in July 2002.

The Inamori foundation created the Kyoto Prize in 1985 “to honor those who have contributed significantly to the scientific, cultural, and spiritual betterment of mankind.” Ohsumi, Sutherland, and the philosophy and arts winner Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak will each receive a diploma, a medal, and 50 million yen (approximately $630,000) at a ceremony in Kyoto in November.

Last year the Kyoto prize in Basic Science went to astrophysicist Rashid Sunyaev of the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics and the Advanced Technology prize to materials scientist John W. Cahn.