The Upside of Self-Cannibalism


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Prof. Zvulun Elazar

Cellular “trash haulers” are assembled on the spot through a unique membrane fusion process

An organism that has fallen on hard times, or simply run out of resources, tears off bits of itself, breaks these down, and uses the pieces to build new organelles and “machinery” better suited to helping it survive its temporary hardship. Could this eerie tale be a true story? Indeed it is, and it plays out daily in many of our body’s cells. This process of self-eating, known as autophagy, is a truly useful one that allows our cells to adapt and survive in changing conditions. Malfunctions in the autophagy process can affect, among others, brain cells – where they are implicated in Parkinson’s disease – and liver cells.
The process relies on a unique organelle called the autophagosome, which is itself continually broken down and rebuilt. According to Prof. Zvulun Elazar of the Faculty of Biochemistry, who researches this “self-cannibalism,” after the autophagosome engulfs an organelle or proteins slated for wrecking, it hauls them along the cellular highway of the cell’s internal skeleton to a “trash dump” called the lysosome. Autophagosome assembly requires multiple membrane fusion events to occur prior to this transfer of materials. Elazar’s research has led to a new understanding of these membrane fusion processes, and his findings may prove relevant for other instances of membrane fusion that take place in cells. A comprehensive picture of the mechanics of membrane fusion and of those involved in the breakdown and rebuilding of the autophagosome may turn up potential new drug targets for a number of diseases.
Prof. Zvulun Elazar's research is supported by the Louis Brause Philanthropic Fund; and the Yeda-Sela Center for Basic Research. Prof. Elazar is the incumbent of the Harold L. Korda Professorial chair of Biology.

Han-Hai | Sabine Kacunko. Still from an interactive video installation, October 2009
The name of this work is Chinese for “dry sea,” and it is the original name for the Gobi Desert. This interactive work is based on microscope images of the desert’s patina fed into a computer, where they become the basic units of the picture. In the Platform China Contemporary Art Institute, a microcosm of the desert appears on a screen. A video camera hooked up to a computer records people entering the gallery. As the number of people in the gallery increases, the scene becomes fragmented, the patina gradually disappearing. The work reflects the sensitivity of the ecological balance to human disruption.
Sabine Kacunko, b. Germany, 1963, lives and works in Berlin and Copenhagen. Her multimedia work, installations and performances have appeared in museums and festivals around the world, including the Lincoln Center in New York, and such cities as Seoul and Beijing.