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Cannibalistic Signals Help Mammalian Embryos Develop Normally

A process called autophagy spurs dying embryonic stem cells to send cannibalistic signals to have their corpses purged, a last gasp that paves the way for normal mammalian// development.

Autophagy is the way cells devour their own unwanted or damaged parts. It was known to be active in cell death that occurs during normal embryonic development, but its precise role was unclear.

Some thought it might contribute to cell death or actually help keep cells alive.

The novel role autophagy plays in removing cells that die during normal embryonic development is described in a study appearing online today in Cell. Mouse embryos lacking autophagy have cells that can’t make the chemical signals needed for their removal by healthy cells. If dead cells build up, it can result in abnormal development and inflammation and also trigger autoimmune disease.

“The activation of autophagy in cells destined to die may serve to clear dead cells and prevent detrimental inflammation during normal development or when cell death occurs in certain diseases,” said Dr. Beth Levine, professor of internal medicine and microbiology and chief of the division of infectious diseases at UT Southwestern. “Our findings also suggest that defects in autophagy might trigger autoimmune diseases and, if so, reversing the defects could potentially help treat such diseases.”

To determine autophagy’s role in development, Dr. Levine, the Cell study’s senior author, and her research team examined autophagy in mouse embryonic stem cells during cavitation. In this earliest wave of programmed cell death that occurs during mammalian development, cells form a ball, known as an embryonic body, and cells in the center die and are removed, leaving a gap.

But in mouse embryonic bodies lacking the autophagy genes atg5 or beclin1, cells died normally but remained in the center. The embryonic bodies then failed to develop normally.

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