Reduce, reuse, recycle - and why this is important for our oceans and our cells

In the CanCell lab led by Anne Simonsen we investigate the molecular mechanisms of autophagy. Learn what autophagy is and why it is important for our health.

Have you seen the plastic island in the middle of the Pacific, made from waste products derived from our everyday life? When our trash is not processed properly, it forms a big extension of junk that affects life in the oceans and destroys marine ecosystems.

After being faced with such shocking images many people reconsider their daily habits and decide to get better at recycling. At least I do. And it works. Recycling is a way to save resources and avoid bigger problems.

This statement applies also to cells. I am a biochemist, and I study how the body works at the molecular level. Right now my main interest is to understand how cells deal with waste management.

The cellular recycling system is called autophagy (meaning "self-eating"). Autophagy allows the cell to get rid of dangerous or broken components before they become toxic. The autophagic machinery breaks waste down to basic units, which then become available to build new molecules in the cell.

We humans handle trash either as general waste or by sorting it into specialized recycle bins. Our cells can do the same. Unselective autophagy takes care of bulk trash in the cell, whereas selective autophagy targets specific cellular components.

Amazingly, the cell can recognize a specific cargo, separate it from the rest of the components in the cell, and isolate it inside a rubbish bag, called an autophagosome. Next, the cell transports the rubbish bag to the lysosome. Here, in the cellular recycling station, specialized enzymes fragment the waste into new building blocks.

Autophagy requires an orchestrated collaboration between proteins, lipids and membranes that work together to recognize, transport and process components into cellular "trash bins". I work in the laboratory led by Anne Simonsen, where we aim to identify how the important players operate together during autophagy.

In much the same way as trash destroys the ocean when we don’t recycle, failures in cellular recycling can also cause serious health problems. Both cancer development and neurodegenerative disorders can be influenced by accumulation of damaged material.

Accumulation of protein aggregates in the brain is at the basis of many neurodegenerative disorders, such as Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Huntington's, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases. I study how autophagic degradation of protein aggregates works. I use cells to generate fluorescent protein aggregates that I can analyse using a microscope. My project consists of analysing how changes in the cell expression of different lipid-binding proteins affect the autophagic degradation of protein aggregates.

The final goal of our research is to understand the molecular mechanisms behind autophagy, to identify problems related to disease, and to find treatments that re-establish functional processes and healthy cells.

Proper waste management is important both at home and for our cells. If we want a healthy planet and a healthy body we all better keep recycling!

By Laura R. de la Ballina
Published May 16, 2018 2:13 PM - Last modified May 23, 2018 9:03 AM

CanCell blog

Welcome to the CanCell blog! Here we share posts about our research as well as our field of expertise.