What Is Autolysis?
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Autolysis - Nature, Process, Influencing Factors, and Applications

Published on Nov 25, 2022   -  4 min read


Autolysis is a process of self-digestion by the cell. Read the article below to learn more about autolysis.

What Is Autolysis?

Autolysis means self-digestion. It is the destruction of a cell by its enzymatic actions. In Greek, autolysis can be explained as self, and lysis means split. Autolysis is not seen in living organisms. It is generally seen in necrotic tissue. Enzymes act on cellular components; these cellular components are called substrates. The enzyme release is a part of the cessation of active cellular processes. This active cell process provides substrates for healthy living tissues. Autolysis is an inactive process. The dead cells cannot digest themselves on their own.

What Is the Nature of Autolysis?

The softening of dead tissues without the bacterial putrefactive processes was a possibility. In 1890, Salkowski called this phenomenon postmortem digestion or autodigestion. This occurs due to intracellular enzymatic changes. The expression "autolysis," now in vogue to designate the same phenomena, was introduced in 1900 by Jacoby. Since then, it has gained increasing prominence in various problems of chemical pathology.

Some believe that postmortem autolysis is a continuation of a normal internal vital process. With the difficulty of evaluating the behavior of autolysis enzymes, it has been concluded that the intracellular proteases responsible for autolysis are not like pepsin or trypsin; the existence of specific anti-enzymes for defense is a consideration. The autolyzing enzymes are in the form of precursors or pro-enzymes. These enzymes become active after death. Acid has to make the protein substrate susceptible to digestion.

The tissues like the liver, spleen, pancreas, gastric mucosa, and leukocytes contain proteolytic enzymes, which are pepsin, trypsin, or erepsin type. These erepsin enzymes need hydrogen ion concentration which makes them alkaline. The pepsin cannot act in an alkaline or neutral solution. The pepsin is predominant in the stomach and the trypsin in the pancreas. The pancreatic trypsin and gastric pepsin are extracted from the cells.

What Is the Process of Autolysis?

  • Autolysis is initiated by failed respiration followed by the failure of oxidative phosphorylation. This reduces high-energy molecules and makes them unavailable to maintain the integrity of the cell.
  • Molecular oxygen accepts terminal electrons in oxidative phosphorylation reactions. Adenosine triphosphate acts as the principal source of energy. The unavailability of molecular oxygen to cells induces anaerobic glycolysis.
  • Glycolysis involves the conversion of glucose to pyruvate to generate adenosine triphosphate. It produces lower adenosine triphosphate than oxidative phosphorylation. It releases acidic byproducts, which reduce the pH of the cell. This halts the enzymatic processes as the synthesis of adenosine triphosphate limits the cellular transport cycle. This transport cycle uses adenosine triphosphate to carry out processes that require the transportation of ions and molecules through the cell membrane.
  • The sodium-potassium ATP pump maintains the membrane potential of the cell. If this pump fails, it can lead to a loss of membrane potential. This happens as sodium ions accumulate in the cell and potassium ions decrease through the ionic channels. This membrane potential loss causes calcium ions to move in the cell. A difference follows this change in the cell's water content due to osmotic pressure.
  • Water retention, ion changes, and acid damage the cell membrane, lysosome, and peroxisome. Lysosomes are membranous organelles consisting of broad-spectrum enzymes which can cause hydrolytic deconstruction of the following: proteins, lipids, carbohydrates, esters, and sulfates.
  • This requires the segregation of enzymes and substrates through a single intracellular membrane. In addition, this membrane prevents the unwanted destruction of intracellular elements.
  • The molecular contents of the cell are protected from the lysosomal enzymes by maintaining the pH of cytosol. The lysosomal activity is useful at acidic pH. The accumulation of glycolysis products decreases the pH of the cell and reduces the effect. Also, lysosomal membranes damaged by water retention in the cell release lysosomal enzymes. These enzymes get active because of decreased cytosol pH and use in cellular components.
  • Peroxisomes are responsible for lipid breakdown, especially long-chain fatty acids. Without the electron transport chain and involved cell mechanisms, lipid breakdown does not occur. Peroxisomes bring about the catabolism of fatty acids and reactive oxygen. Fatty acids and oxygen are released in the cytosol when the peroxisomal membrane is damaged due to water retention and digestion by enzymes.

What Are the Factors Influencing Autolysis?

Autolysis occurs after the death of an organism; the changes are similar to postmortem or post-death changes. The process of autolysis is internal. However, internal and external factors can influence the occurrence rate. For example, warm temperatures increase the function of autolysis, and cold temperatures slow it down. Therefore, one can consider a dead animal lying in the heat will autolyze faster than an animal when stored or placed in cooler surroundings. Also, a large animal will autolyze faster than a smaller size animal. This happens because the core body temperature stays warmer in larger mass compared to smaller mass.

The liver, pancreas, and intestines autolyze faster as they have more self-digesting enzymes. The rate of autolysis does not affect daily activities. Histology analyzes biological tissues for disease diagnosis, forensic investigations, and archeological history.

What Are the Applications of Autolysis?

The phenomenon of autolysis has experimental as well as industrial applications. Autolysis begins after cell death. Autolysis aims to release a definite constituent from the yeast cells and then restrain the initiator without modifying the compound of interest. There are many proteinases in yeast, and they play critical regulatory roles in living cells. Mechanical disruption methods help the isolation of enzymes from yeast through autolysis. The main advantages of the autolytic method are that it does not demand sophisticated equipment and is short on contact time. Other industrial applications of autolysis are preparations for food addiction, food extension, and texturizing.


Autolysis produces an acidic, anaerobic and nutrient-friendly environment. Such an environment helps the activity of invasive microorganisms. These opportunistic organisms bring about the process of putrefaction. Autolysis and putrefaction are the processes causing decomposition. Autolysis is a part of dead organisms and necrotic tissue. The enzymes act on cellular substrates. The active cellular processes stop releasing enzymes. Autolysis is an inactive process, even if autolysis seems like an active digestion process. The dead cells cannot digest themselves on their own.

Frequently Asked Questions


What Is an Example of Autolysis or Self-Digestion?

Autolysis, for instance, will progress more quickly in warmer temperatures than in colder ones. As a result, a dead animal left in the heat will begin to autolyze more quickly than one kept in the refrigerator. One example of autolysis is the autolysis of the pancreas. A few hours after the death, pancreatic enzymes are released, which begin to digest the cellular components of the pancreas.


How Does Autolysis Occur?

The process of cells being digested enzymatically by their enzymes is known as autolysis, and it typically takes place in dying or dead cells. Autolytic changes from the periphery of the endoscopic submucosal dissection specimens have previously been suggested to result from a lengthy procedure.


How Does Autolysis Differ From Apoptosis?

Apoptosis is the death of cells that occurs as a normal and controlled part of an organism's growth or development. Autolysis is the destruction of cells or tissues by their enzymes, particularly those released by lysosomes.


Which Cell Is Involved in Autolysis?

Lysosomes are liable for autolysis. This is because they contain hydrolytic catalysts that review starches, proteins, lipids, foreign particles, and dead cell material. Proteases, particularly cathepsin, play an important role in the breakdown of proteins.


Which Organ Undergoes Autolysis First After Death?

The gill arch and gastrointestinal tract (intestines, stomach, and pyloric caeca) were the first organs to undergo autolysis. The kidney, liver, and brain were the second group of organs affected by autolysis. According to the research, the pancreas is the first organ to undergo self-degradation or autolysis.


What Occurs Following Autolysis?

The processes that lead to decomposition are autolysis and putrefaction. Necrotic tissue and dead organisms both exhibit autolysis. Cellular substrates are the targets of the enzymes' actions. The active cellular processes no longer release enzymes.


Is Autolysis Possible Prior to Death?

Autolysis is not possible before death as cell functions are maintained normally, which further balances the metabolic process. The first stage of decomposition is autolysis, which occurs shortly after death, typically within four minutes. Tissues begin to be destroyed and broken down by their own enzymes when they enter autolysis.


What Are the Factors That Prevent Autolysis?

Autolysis is a self-digestion process that takes place in cells and tissues after death.  Some factors that can prevent or slow down the autolysis process are:
Temperature: Freezing temperature can delay the autolysis process by slowing down the enzymatic process. 
pH: The activity of autolytic enzymes is usually delayed at extreme pH.
Preservation Process: Different preservation processes, like embalming or cryopreservation, can also prevent or delay the process of autolysis. 


What Exactly Is Lysosomal Autolysis?

The process of cells being digested enzymatically by their enzymes is known as autolysis, and it typically takes place in dying or dead cells. Lysosomes mediate autolysis. They are composed of hydrolytic enzymes that break down lipids, carbohydrates, proteins, and dead cells.


What Is Skin Autolysis?

Skin autolysis refers to the self-degradation of skin tissues. Autolytic debridement involves using a moist environment that makes it easier for the body's endogenous enzymes to remove necrotic debris and tissues that have lost their vitality from a wound. The process usually begins a few hours after the death.


What Is the Duration of Autolysis After Death?

The duration of autolysis usually depends on several factors like temperature, pH, humidity, etc. Putrefaction occurs four to ten days after death (Gas (odor) and discoloration begins). Black putrefaction occurs 10 to 20 days after death (the skin on the body turns black, bloating collapses, and fluids leak out of the body).

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Last reviewed at:
25 Nov 2022  -  4 min read




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