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Why Our Body Destroys Itself

In the early 1990s when scientists first peered into a cell, they saw something amazing. They observed the cell destroying its own proteins and organ-like parts (organelles)—structures that it had invested heavily into building.

The process of autophagy (literally “self-eating”) is so vital to our survival that it was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Winner Yoshinori Ohsumi described the discovery of this complex process as a surprise. He watched as cells wrapped entire proteins and organelles in a protective membrane—and then shredded them to pieces with enzymes. It was the equivalent of watching a wrecking ball take down a skyscraper, reducing a majestic work of architecture into a pile of bricks. Why would a cell demolish something it had worked very hard to build?

As Ohsumi’s team investigated further, the metaphor changed: Autophagy isn’t cellular self-cannibalism so much as it is cellular pruning. A cell that was indiscriminately destroying pieces of itself was not going to last long, but one that could select old, broken, misshapen, or malignant proteins and recycle them into something new would flourish.

Since Ohsumi’s work in the early 1990s, researchers around the world have found evidence of autophagy in every tissue of the human body. Old proteins are turned into new ones, bacteria are destroyed, and the nutrients bound up are redirected into more critical processes. Over and over, our body’s cells sing the same song of autophagy in slightly different keys. Sacrifice and destruction let the body build something better.

Possible Preaching Angle:

1) Discipline; Pruning - This concept seems familiar. We need to be pruned to stay healthy? Yes. We grow through adversity and trimming? Of course. “Every branch that bears fruit [my Father] prunes so that it will be even more fruitful” (John 15:2, Heb. 12:11). 2) Easter; Resurrection – The Lord will “tear down and recreate” these frail bodies and raise them to new life when he returns for us (1 Cor. 15:1-58, 1 Thess. 4:13-18).


Adapted from Lindsay Stokes, “Why Our Body Destroys Itself,” CT magazine (Jan/Feb, 2017), pp. 60-63

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