A team of scientists led by Indian American Suresh Subramani says it has cracked a vital biological puzzle that may hold the key to everything from ageing to cancer.
The puzzle has to do with authphagy, or "self-eating" - the process by which nucleated (eukaryotic) cells keep themselves healthy. All eukaryotic cells dispose of bacteria, viruses, damaged organelles and other non-essential components through this self-eating process.
Subramani, of the University of California, said the "key player" in this process is a protein known as Atg30, which controls the degradation of cells.
Findings of the study, published in the latest issue of the journal Developmental Cell, is important because it allows scientists to control some aspects of cellular autophagy.
This, in turn, could help illuminate its role in ageing, immunity, neuro-degeneration and even cancer.
Autophagy was first described about 40 years ago, but has only recently become a topic of interest in cell biology because it helps maintain the balance among synthesis, degradation and recycling.
"For the first time, we can use a protein to control the (self-eating) process," Subramani said. "It's an important step in understanding the workings of cells."