PerspectiveCell Biology

Pancreas micromanages autophagy

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Science  20 Feb 2015:
Vol. 347, Issue 6224, pp. 826-827
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaa6810

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Cells need to find ways of surviving when times are hard. One way of dealing with nutrient scarcity is to digest intracellular constituents, providing a source of amino acids that can be used to synthesize proteins that are essential for survival (1). This process of autophagy (2), however, poses a problem for the body's specialized fuel-sensing cells. β cells within the pancreatic islet respond to blood glucose concentration—when it rises after a meal, these cells release insulin; otherwise, under basal conditions (between meals), the cells are in a “starvation”-like state (3). So how do they maintain a normal turnover of intracellular components during this metabolic deprivation? Why don't they eat themselves as other cells would? At the very least, autophagy under basal conditions could compromise the ability to respond optimally to fluctuations in blood glucose, posing a health risk. On page 878 of this issue, Goginashvili et al. (4) show how β cells avoid inappropriate autophagy, and describe a form of this process tailored to the needs of these cells.