University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine researchers have described a previously unknown biological mechanism in cells that prevents them from cannibalizing themselves for fuel. The mechanism involves the fuel used by cells under normal conditions and relies on an ongoing transfer of calcium between two cell components via an ion channel. Without this transfer, cells start consuming themselves as a way of to get enough energy.
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AMP-activated protein kinase, or AMPK, is a master regulator protein of metabolism that is conserved from yeast to humans. When a cell is low on fuel, AMPK shuts down processes that use energy and turns on processes that produce energy.
Biologists have been studying how AMPK works for several decades and know that once it is activated, AMPK turns on a large number of genes by passing the "make more energy" message through numerous signaling cascades in the cell. What was not known, until now, was that AMPK also works via an epigenetic mechanism to slow down or stop cell growth.