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Keywords:

  • autophagy;
  • atg gene;
  • C. elegans;
  • D. melanogaster;
  • embryogenesis;
  • organogenesis;
  • vertebrates

Autophagy is a lysosome-mediated degradation pathway used by eukaryotes to recycle cytosolic components in both basal and stress conditions. Several genes have been described as regulators of autophagy, many of them being evolutionarily conserved from yeast to mammals. The study of autophagy-defective model systems has made it possible to highlight the importance of correctly functioning autophagic machinery in the development of invertebrates as, for example, during the complex events of fly and worm metamorphosis. In vertebrates, on the other hand, autophagy defects can be lethal for the animal if the mutated gene is involved in the early stages of development, or can lead to severe phenotypes if the mutation affects later stages. However, in both lower and higher eukaryotes, autophagy seems to be crucial during embryogenesis by acting in tissue remodeling in parallel with apoptosis. An increase of autophagic cells is, in fact, observed in the embryonic stages characterized by massive cell elimination. Moreover, autophagic processes probably protect cells during metabolic stress and nutrient paucity that occur during tissue remodeling. In light of such evidence, it can be concluded that there is a close interplay between autophagy and the processes of cell death, proliferation and differentiation that determine the development of higher eukaryotes.