Epithelial cells that line lung airways produce and secrete proteins with important roles in barrier function and host defense. Secretion of airway goblet cells is controlled by autophagy proteins during inflammatory conditions, resulting in accumulation of mucin proteins. We hypothesized that autophagy proteins would also be important in the function of club cells, dominant secretory airway epithelial cells that are dysregulated in chronic lung disease. We found that in the absence of an inflammatory stimulus, mice with club cells deficient for the autophagy protein Atg5 had a markedly diminished expression of secreted host defense proteins secretoglobulin family 1A, member 1 (Scgb1a1) and surfactant proteins A1 and D (Sftpa1 and Sftpd), as well as abnormal club cell morphology. Adult mice with targeted loss of Atg5 also showed diminished levels of host defense proteins in regenerating cells following ablation with naphthalene. A mouse strain with global deficiency of Atg16-like 1 (Atg16l1), an Atg5 binding partner, had a similar loss of host defense proteins and abnormal club cell morphology. Cigarette smoke exposure reduced levels of Scgb1a1 in wild-type mice as expected. Smoke exposure was not required to trigger club cell abnormalities in mice bearing the human ATG16 variant Atg16l1T300A/T300A, which had low Scgb1a1 levels independent of this environmental stress. Evaluation of lung tissues from former smokers with severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disease showed evidence of reduced autophagy and SCGB1A1 expression in club cells. Thus, autophagy proteins are required for the function of club cells, independent of the cellular stress of cigarette smoke, with roles that appear to be distinct from those of other secretory cell types.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)L259-L270
JournalAmerican Journal of Physiology - Lung Cellular and Molecular Physiology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Aug 2019


  • Autophagy
  • Club cell


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