Who First Discovered Autophagy?


The discovery of autophagy has spanned over several decades. In 1948, a Belgian biochemist named Christian de Duve discovered the lysosome and identified its functions in regard to autophagy. Lysosomes help with the process of autophagy by ingesting and destroying unneeded cell particles, debris or pathogenic substances. These membrane-bound organelles contain different enzymes that are used to break down biomolecules and food within the body. 

Christian de Duve collaborated with different scientists and were able to identify with an electron microscopy the presence of lysosomes in rat livers. In 1960, they proved that lysosomes were breaking each other down which showed signs of the beginning of autophagy. Christian de Duve was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1974 in Physiology or Medicine "for their discoveries concerning the structural and functional organization of the cell."

Yoshinori Ohsumi is the individual who discovered autophagy. Native to Fukuoka, Japan, Yoshinori Ohsumi studied at the University of Tokyo, where he conducted many years of experimentation with yeast identifying the particular genes responsible for autophagy. His work in the 1990s laid the foundation for the future study of autophagy and what we know of the process today. These two individuals are credited with discovering autophagy as we know it today. These two scientists have paved the way for other individuals to research this unique and fascinating process. 

Who Won The Nobel Prize For Discovering Autophagy?

During his studies in the 1990s, Yoshinori Ohsumi and his team examined the transport of ions and small molecules in the cell membrane-bound organelle in the cell. In 1991, after viewing yeast cells under a microscope, one of Dr. Ohsumi's graduate students discovered mutant yeast cells. They found the first autophagy-defective mutant named APG1-1(ATG1). They went on to find 14 different ATG mutants.

 Yoshinori Ohsumi received The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for 'discoveries of the mechanisms for autophagy' on October 3, 2016. Through his numerous studies on mutations and autophagy, he is given credit for discovering autophagy. Since his experiments, autophagy-related pathways have been documented in plants and mammals. 

What Is Autophagy?

If you are wondering what autophagy is, you are not alone. This complex process is not always easily understood as its effects have just begun to be revealed over the last 70 years or so. Autophagy occurs when a cell decides that contents within itself are problematic and fuses them into its own cell lining, destroying the problematic material. We know this happens in three different states: macroautophagy, microautophagy, and chaperone-mediated autophagy. 


This type of autophagy is the most common. Macroautophagy occurs when the body is deprived of nutrients through fasting. During starvation, the cells go into a stressed-out period where they renew other cells as a survival mechanism. Lysosomes which are located in the lining of the cell walls help during this process by destroying toxins and recycling problematic materials. They also help to transport materials so they can become regenerated. 


Usually autophagy occurs during times of nutrient deprivation but not microautophagy. This type of autophagy happens when the body experiences nitrogen deficiencies. During times of nitrogen deprivation, microautophagy helps the cells survive. It engulfs the cellular matter into lysosomes so they can be broken down.  

Chaperone-Mediated Autophagy

Chaperone-mediated autophagy is similar to macroautophagy where the cells are stressed through nutrient deprivation. Chaperone-mediated autophagy uses a helper mechanism called a chaperone. A protein must be present during this process and within the lysosome serving as a chaperone. 

Has Autophagy Been Proven?

Research on autophagy is still being conducted. This complex process has been viewed in plants, animals, and more recently in humans. A study in 2019 explored the dynamic connection between autophagy and its effect on cancer. The study showed that autophagy helped delay the growth of certain cancers and various stages, while others promoted tumor growth depending on the stage. Autophagy has also been shown to promote the effects of liver regeneration and prevent the progression of certain liver diseases like Wilson's disease, acute liver injury, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, and chronic alcohol-related liver disease

Autophagy has also been shown to positively affect the body's immune system and improve many neurodegenerative diseases. The process of recycling and cleansing the body's cells can elevate inflammation throughout the body which is the root cause of almost every disease. While there are many documented positive effects of autophagy, science continues to learn more about this intricate process. The effects of autophagy have been studied for the last century or so, and research continues to answer how autophagy has been proven.  

What Are The Benefits of Autophagy?

Autophagy has several documented benefits that occur throughout the body. Autophagy's anti-aging benefits have been shown to help eliminate damaged materials and toxins from the body. By using the waste produced by cells to recycle and create regenerated cells, this natural process helps to make sure your cells don't get overloaded. As we age, all processes slow down, making cellular health more important to maintain to prevent age-related disease. 

The benefits of autophagy not only helps prevent the development of some diseases but also helps manage certain illnesses. Most disease begins with a defective or damaged cell that goes on to multiply. Autophagy helps to recognize and eliminate these faulty cells from the body. The more often this occurs, the more likely these cells will be targeted and recycled. Studies are still examining the effects of autophagy and its use to combat illnesses like cancer and degenerative diseases. 

Where Did The Word Autophagy Come From?

The word "autophagy" which comes from the Ancient Greek word, Αὐτόφαγος autóphagos, Meaning "self-devouring" and κύτος kýtos, Meaning "hollow" was commonly used since the mid 19th century. Christian de Duve was the first scientist who coined the term over 40 years ago. He is a Belgian scientist who was conducting research on rat livers and noticed the breakdown of mitochondria and other cellular materials within the lysosomes. 

This research led him to believe that the body has protective cellular mechanisms that turn on when nutrients are depleted from the body. This bodily response helps recover and repair cells during times when the body is stressed and starving. Research continues to help us better understand autophagy and its effects on the body. To date 32 different autophagy-related genes have been discovered as well as multiple stages and types of autophagy. 

Is Autophagy Good or Bad?

Since the term autophagy comes from the Greek word for "self-eat" or "self-devour" it is easy to wonder, is autophagy bad or good? Even though it may sound negative, autophagy is actually good. Autophagy is a process that helps improve your overall wellbeing, longevity, and disease prevention abilities. Our cellular health would deteriorate rapidly without autophagy, causing widespread disease and illness. Autophagy is a great thing that our body does. Its benefits are numerous. 

Supplements Can Help

SpermidineLIFE is the world’s leading spermidine supplement created to help you meet your daily intake of spermidine. Spermidine is a novel polyamine recently identified to help your body induce autophagy. A diet rich in spermidine has been linked to increased longevity and lifespan. One of the major benefits of spermidine is the triggering of autophagy within your body.


  • Don Moxley - Director of Applied Science

    Don Moxley is the Director of Applied Science at Longevity Labs. Moxley draws upon his career as an athlete, a sports scientist, and an instructor to lead and educate on the science of autophagy and longevity.