Methods for assessing autophagy and autophagic cell death

Methods Mol Biol. 2008;445:29-76. doi: 10.1007/978-1-59745-157-4_3.


Autophagic (or type 2) cell death is characterized by the massive accumulation of autophagic vacuoles (autophagosomes) in the cytoplasm of cells that lack signs of apoptosis (type 1 cell death). Here we detail and critically assess a series of methods to promote and inhibit autophagy via pharmacological and genetic manipulations. We also review the techniques currently available to detect autophagy, including transmission electron microscopy, half-life assessments of long-lived proteins, detection of LC3 maturation/aggregation, fluorescence microscopy, and colocalization of mitochondrion- or endoplasmic reticulum-specific markers with lysosomal proteins. Massive autophagic vacuolization may cause cellular stress and represent a frustrated attempt of adaptation. In this case, cell death occurs with (or in spite of) autophagy. When cell death occurs through autophagy, on the contrary, the inhibition of the autophagic process should prevent cellular demise. Accordingly, we describe a strategy for discriminating cell death with autophagy from cell death through autophagy.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Apoptosis / physiology*
  • Autophagy / physiology*
  • Cell Death / physiology
  • Endoplasmic Reticulum / ultrastructure
  • HeLa Cells
  • Humans
  • Lysosomes / ultrastructure
  • Microscopy, Electron, Transmission
  • Microscopy, Fluorescence
  • Mitochondria / ultrastructure
  • Phagosomes / ultrastructure