Autophagy is a tightly regulated catabolic process whereby cells degrade their constituents to dispose of unwanted cytoplasmic elements and recycle nutrients for cellular remodeling. Studies of autophagy in mammals have elicited substantial interest because it is linked to a range of physiologic and pathologic states. In this issue of the JCI, Mariño et al. uncover a role for autophagy in a balance disorder related to inner ear pathologies. Mice lacking the protease autophagy-related 4B (Atg4b, also known as autophagin-1) exhibited a systemic reduction in autophagy and showed defects in the development of otoconia, organic particles that contain calcium carbonate crystals and proteins and that are essential for balance perception (equilibrioception) in mammals. The intriguing aspect of this work is that an autophagy block impairs the secretion and assembly of otoconial proteins, emphasizing a role for autophagy in functions distinct from macromolecule degradation.
Andreas Till, Suresh Subramani