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The science of autophagy

By Laurel Thomas

Red spike heels punctuate the floor in unison as four “harpies” in vibrant shades of pink, yellow, blue and orange encircle the intended victim, the alien invader. Their sharp steps keep pace with driving music that sets a tone for the devouring that is about to begin.

A kaleidoscope of colors, abstract images and geometric patterns projected from on high down to a stage-within-a-stage define the boundaries of this choreographed conflict. The music becomes turbulent, dissonant as digestion begins.

A cell biologist, choreographer, composer and science illustrator collaborated on an artistic creation to explain a complicated process, in which our cells dispose of that which no longer is needed and recycle essential parts worth keeping.

The process, which scientists have come to better understand in the last decade, is very intricate and essential, but also can go wrong. Defects in autophagy can contribute to cancer, some types of neurodegeneration, diabetes, heart disease, liver disease, various muscle diseases, and more.

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