PhD life

What is autophagy?

With this post I want to go back to the story of how I ended up doing a PhD in Germany and I would say that we are almost close to the point where I made my choice for the following three years of my life.

Few months after I started the Master of Science by Research (MRes) in York (UK) I decided I was actually enjoying so much research that I wanted to continue on this path. The obvious next step after this year in York was to do a PhD: I loved my supervisor there, and the small group he was the head of, and I would have taken without any second thoughts the chance to do a PhD there. Unfortunately, Brexit happened some months earlier and, by then, fundings and universities were (and by the time I am writing this post, still are) not sure about what to do with European students. Therefore all the fundings were reserved to UK citizens and European students that have lived at least three years in the UK: I was out of the competition even before entering it.

Even if a bit discouraged and knowing that I did not want to go back to Italy by then, I decided to start sending applications in labs around Germany.

I will not talk about the selection process for PhD students, this would need many posts and I promised myself I wanted to use this blog for sharing my scientific interests and my not so straight path into research, but I have to say that it was a long and somewhat difficult process that in the end offered me a choice between two labs. Every time I had to make a choice for my future, I always decided for the thing that was more interesting and seemed better outlined: I know life is not easy and every choice we make leaves out a whole world of possibilities that could have happened and that plans sometimes do not go as expected, but having a nice and outlined plan is already a good start of a new adventure. Therefore, when I made my choice I went for the group that seemed more confident about the project they were offering me. Moreover, the outline of this project was involving in vivo and in vitro experiments, that were basically combining my different master experiences and, in my mind, I was giving myself the chance to better explore the subject of my future studies, combining many different techniques.

I will talk about this in my future posts, but for today I would like to briefly talk about autophagy and its pivotal role in neurons for the science related fact (SRF), the main argument behind my current research project.

“Science Related Fact” (SRF):

The term autophagy (“self-eating” from Greek) describes regulated degradation routes of eukaryotic cells, highly conserved from yeast to mammals, for the bulk degradation of cytosolic material and organelles through delivery to lysosomes/vacuole, resulting in the recycling of macromolecular constituents. Routinely, autophagy has a role in cellular quality control where it degrades protein aggregates and damaged or dysfunctional organelles, in order to adapt to changing environmental conditions and maintain cellular homeostasis (have a look below for some example of autophagy in health and diseases).

An example of some of the role of autophagy in physiological and pathological processes. From

Neurons are post-mitotic cells that generally do not have the capacity of replication. Moreover, they have an elaborate morphology characterized by a uniquely polarized cellular architecture able to process and transmit information. Such features represent a striking challenge for managing proteins and organelles turnover in order to ensure the removal of the dysfunctional ones. Therefore, autophagy has a pivotal role for neuronal homeostasis and survival and this can be particularly appreciated by the neural- specific depletion of genes required for autophagy, that is sufficient to cause axon degeneration and neuronal death in mice. Likewise, defects in the autophagic pathway, or its natural diminished activity that occurs with age, might lead to accumulation of misfolded proteins, as it is the case of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. Accordingly, many studies demonstrate the beneficial role of the upregulation of autophagy in animal model of neurodegenerative diseases. Indeed, recent evidences show that autophagy is finely tuned in neurons and that it is adapted to the microenvironment of the synapses, requiring temporal and spatial regulation, in order to accomplish functions to help neurons survival and keep them working.

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