ABSTRACT: Macroautophagy (commonly abbreviated as autophagy) is an evolutionary conserved lysosome-directed vesicular trafficking pathway in eukaryotic cells that mediates the lysosomal degradation of intracellular components. The cytoplasmic cargo is initially enclosed by a specific double membrane vesicle, termed the autophagosome. By this means, autophagy either helps to remove damaged organelles, long-lived proteins and protein aggregates, or serves as a recycling mechanism for molecular building blocks. Autophagy was once invented by unicellular organisms to compensate the fluctuating external supply of nutrients. In higher eukaryotes, it is strongly enhanced under various stress conditions, such as nutrient and growth factor deprivation or DNA damage. The serine/threonine kinase Atg1 was the first identified autophagy-related gene (ATG) product in yeast. The corresponding nematode homolog UNC-51, however, has additional neuronal functions. Vertebrate genomes finally encode five closely related kinases, of which UNC-51-like kinase 1 (Ulk1) and Ulk2 are both involved in the regulation of autophagy and further neuron-specific vesicular trafficking processes. This review will mainly focus on the vertebrate Ulk1/2-Atg13-FIP200 protein complex, its function in autophagy initiation, its evolutionary descent from the yeast Atg1-Atg13-Atg17 complex, as well as the additional non-autophagic functions of its components. Since the rapid nutrient- and stress-dependent cellular responses are mainly mediated by serine/threonine phosphorylation, it will summarize our current knowledge about the relevant upstream signaling pathways and the altering phosphorylation status within this complex during autophagy induction.
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