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Dining In

How the right amount of cellular self-cannibalism can keep you healthy

By
10:45am, March 11, 2011

To keep things tidy, nerve cells (red) nibble away at themselves via Pac-Man–like structures (green and yellow). 

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

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