Scientists Say: Autophagy

This is what happens when cells eat themselves


Yoshinori Ohsumi studied yeast to figure out how cells recycled their own parts.

Masur/Wikimedia Commons

Autophagy (noun, “Au-TOH-pha-gee”)

Sometimes a cell needs to break down its own parts. The process is called autophagy. The term comes from a Greek word that means “self-devouring.” During autophagy, the cell parts to be recycled get isolated in a small sac called an autophagosome. This sac fuses with another sac filled with enzymes. The enzymes break down the junk parts. Those broken down bits can then be used again. Sometimes cells use autophagy when they are starving, eating bits of themselves to keep their energy levels up. Autophagy is thus important in exercise, but it’s also been shown to play a role in cancer and Parkinson’s disease.

In a sentence

Scientist Yoshinori Ohsumi won the 2016 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for discovering how autophagy worked.

Follow Eureka! Lab on Twitter

Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.

More Stories from Science News Explores on Life