How the right amount of cellular self-cannibalism can keep you healthy
Andrey Tsvetkov, Steven Finkbeiner, UCSF
There’s a little Hannibal Lecter in all of us.
But while the famous cannibal dined on chunks of his enemies and friends, most people stick to gnawing on themselves at a microscopic level. In fact, the cells of organisms from yeast to humans regularly engage in self-cannibalism. Cells chew on bits of their cytoplasm — the jellylike substance that fills their bellies — and dine on their own internal organs, although usually without the fava beans and Chianti.
It may sound macabre, but gorging on one’s own innards, a process called autophagy, is a means of self-preservation, cleansing and stress management.
“It has become evident that it is really an essential or vital function,” says Fulvio Reggiori, a cell biologist at the University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands.
A munch here gets rid of garbage that might otherwise clog the system. A nibble there rids cells of malfunctioning parts. One chomp disposes of