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Autophagy allows the orderly degradation and recycling of cellular components. The name “autophagy” was coined by Belgian biochemist Christian de Duve in 1963. Autophagy was first observed by Keith R. Porter and his student Thomas Ashford at the Rockefeller Institute. A new era of autophagy research began in 1990s when several groups of scientists independently discovered autophagy-related genes using the budding yeast. The field of autophagy research experienced accelerated growth at the turn of the century. Knowledge of ATG genes provided scientists more convenient tools to dissect functions of autophagy in human health and disease.
In 1999, a landmark discovery connecting autophagy with cancer was published by Beth Levine’s group. Macroautophagy is the main pathway, used primarily to eradicate damaged cell organelles or unused proteins. Microautophagy, on the other hand, involves the direct engulfment of cytoplasmic material into the lysosome. This occurs by invagination, meaning the inward folding of the lysosomal membrane, or cellular protrusion. Chaperone-mediated autophagy, or CMA, is a very complex and specific pathway, which involves the recognition by the hsc70-containing complex. Mitophagy is the selective degradation of mitochondria by autophagy.
It often occurs to defective mitochondria following damage or stress. Mitophagy promotes turnover of mitochondria and prevents accumulation of dysfunctional mitochondria which can lead to cellular degeneration. Lipophagy is the degradation of lipids by autophagy, a function which has been shown to exist in both animal and fungal cells. The role of lipophagy in plant cells however remain elusive. The first autophagy genes were identified by genetic screens conducted in the budding yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae.