au·​toph·​a·​gy ȯ-ˈtä-fə-jē How to pronounce autophagy (audio)
: the biological process that involves the enzymatic breakdown of a cell's cytoplasm or cytoplasmic components (such as damaged or unneeded organelles or proteins) within the lysosomes of the same cell
Most of the time, cells sweep away this debris. They even recycle it for fuel. Through the process of autophagy, or "self-eating," cells create specialized membranes that engulf junk in the cytoplasm and carry it to a region of the cell called the lysosome, where the waste is broken down and burned for energy.Gretchen Reynolds
Certain environmental cues (such as starvation, high temperature, low oxygen, hormonal stimulation) or intracellular stress (damaged organelles, accumulation of mutant proteins, microbial invasion) activate signalling pathways that increase autophagy.Beth Levine
… proliferating [cancer] cells maintain a nutrient supply by hijacking a natural cell-housekeeping process called autophagy, in which cells chop up and dispose of damaged or obsolete cell components such as proteins.Nathan Seppa

Example Sentences

Recent Examples on the Web Augmenting autophagy in older individuals with amyloidosis, Kelly hopes, will allow their aged immune cells to take out the trash properly. Amber Dance, Discover Magazine, 13 Apr. 2023 How long to fast for autophagy to begin is up for debate. Erica Sweeney, Men's Health, 31 Mar. 2023 Beclin2 may perform a different role in autophagy in other conditions. Justin Quiles, The Conversation, 8 Feb. 2023 In 2016, cell biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on autophagy. Justin Quiles, The Conversation, 8 Feb. 2023 Dysfunctional autophagy also plays an important role in most neurodegenerative diseases. Justin Quiles, The Conversation, 8 Feb. 2023 In addition, intermittent fasting helps the immune system by promoting the process of autophagy. Bryant Stamford, The Courier-Journal, 25 Aug. 2022 Her PhD work focused on molecular mechanisms regulating autophagy and was awarded with highly competitive dissertation prizes. Alex Zhavoronkov, Forbes, 11 Aug. 2022 The autophagy of utopian experiments seems nearly inevitable, perhaps because communities founded on ideals rely on individuals to sustain them. New York Times, 22 July 2021 See More

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'autophagy.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History


borrowed from French autophagie, from auto- auto- + -phagie -phagy

Note: As a term in cell biology introduced by the Belgian immunologist Jules Bordet (1870-1961) in "La bactériophagie ou l'autolyse microbienne transmissible," Volume jubilaire publié à l'occasion du centenaire de la Société royale des sciences médicales et naturelles de Bruxelles (Brussels, 1922), p. 363.

First Known Use

1924, in the meaning defined above

Time Traveler
The first known use of autophagy was in 1924

Dictionary Entries Near autophagy

Cite this Entry

“Autophagy.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 10 Jun. 2023.

Medical Definition


au·​toph·​a·​gy ȯ-ˈtäf-ə-jē How to pronounce autophagy (audio)
plural autophagies
: digestion of cellular constituents by enzymes of the same cell
autophagic adjective
Last Updated: - Updated example sentences
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