What is the Garbage Disposal of the Cell?

February 14, 2024

Every cell is a miniature powerhouse, gleaning energy from nutrients and synthesizing all the molecules it needs to do its job as a liver cell, heart muscle cell or neuron. Whatever a cell can't use, it gets recycled by these tiny saclike intracellular structures called lysosomes, from the Greek words for "digestive body." These cellular garbage disposals are responsible for digesting foreign materials and worn-out cell organelles that build up inside cells, and for recycling proteins that no longer work properly.

A 2004 Nobel Prize in chemistry was awarded for discovering how the proteasome, one of the cellular garbage disposals, knows which proteins it should keep and which to discard. Cells mark their waste with a chemical tag that allows the proteasome to grab it and break it down. The process is like packing a suitcase and throwing out the old clothes after you've bought new ones.

Sometimes a cell can't quite dispose of a protein that no longer works properly, so it simply hangs onto it and forms a glob called an aggregate to keep the protein from gumming up normal cellular machinery. These aggregates can be harmful, as in the case of insulin and other protein deposits that build up in people with type 2 diabetes and some brain diseases.

The lysosomal waste disposal system also can be compromised by mutations that cause it to make less of any of the 60 or more enzymes involved in the degradation process, or by running out of cellular "garbage bags." When the intricate dance of destruction, renewal and removal starts to go wrong, the cell becomes congested, leading to conditions such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.


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