Understanding Cell Waste: Aging and Autophagy

From Dr. Chiara Bertipaglia, Postdoctoral Research Scientist, Cell Biology & Pathology Department, Columbia University, New York

Field of Research: Cell Biology

The name “autophagy” comes from the Greek and literally means “self-eating.” As surprising as it may seem, every cell of our body digests its own parts on a regular basis during its life. Like all living things, cells as a whole, or just some of their intracellular components, become old. As such, they can have a toxic and damaging effect. The brains of patients affected by neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s or Parkinson’s show so called “inclusion bodies,” that is to say, solid masses of accumulated toxic material. Thus, such waste must be disposed of.

Cells have evolved autophagy as a way to get rid of their aged material: they enwrap it into vesicles, which are shells made up of lipids, to deliver it to specialized compartments so it can be degraded – more or less like the garbage trucks that collect trash from the street and transport it to the dumping ground.

In the image, one autophagy vesicle carrying cellular garbage has been extracted from cells and imaged under a transmission electron microscope. This type of microscopy allows scientists to visualize fine details, such as the two layers of shells these vesicles actually possess. The size is about 200 nm (20,000 times smaller than 1 mm) The content is so densely packed that appears like a black, granular spot.


Autophagy vesicle imaged under the electron microscope (left). Schematic drawing representing the main features (right). This image was taken in 2015 as part of a research project on waste disposal mechanisms adopted by cells, in the lab of Carsten Sachse (Structural & Computational Biology Unit, European Molecular Biology Laboratory, Heidelberg, Germany).


Learn more about Dr. Bertipaglia’s research:

Bertipaglia C. et al., EMBO Reports (2016). http://embor.embopress.org/content/17/7/1044.long



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