New Delhi: The 2019 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been awarded jointly to William G Kaelin Jr, Sir Peter J Ratcliffe and Gregg L. Semenza for their discoveries of how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability.

Here’s how the discovery matters: Animals need oxygen for the conversion of food into useful energy. The fundamental importance of oxygen has been understood for centuries, but how cells adapt to changes in levels of oxygen has long been unknown. The three scientists identified molecular machinery that regulates the activity of genes in response to varying levels of oxygen.

The seminal discoveries by this year’s Nobel Laureates revealed the mechanism for one of life’s most essential adaptive processes. They established the basis for our understanding of how oxygen levels affect cellular metabolism and physiological function. Their discoveries have also paved the way for promising new strategies to fight anaemia, cancer and many other diseases.

Since it was first established in 1901, the Nobel prize in physiology or medicine has been awarded 109 times to 216 scientists. Last year’s winners were James P Allison and Tasuku Honjo, who shared the prize for their work on cancer treatments which involve harnessing the body’s immune system.

“Thanks to the groundbreaking work of these Nobel Laureates, we know much more about how different oxygen levels regulate fundamental physiological processes. Oxygen sensing allows cells to adapt their metabolism to low oxygen levels: for example, in our muscles during intense exercise. Other examples of adaptive processes controlled by oxygen sensing include the generation of new blood vessels and the production of red blood cells,” said the statement released by the committee