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The human body can be a little pessimistic, constantly hoarding any excess nutrients just in case things go south. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense—when you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, being able to hang onto your resources can make the difference between life and death. Cells on the other hand, have long puzzled researchers with their tendency to throw away essential chemicals without any apparent regard for the future.

“The chemicals in a cell can basically be classified into two groups: metabolites and proteins,” explains Jumpei Yamagishi, a first-year graduate student at the University of Tokyo. As cells take in nutrients, such as sugars, fats, and proteins, they use the comparatively small metabolites, like amino acids, as intermediaries to break down the nutrients and release the energy stored in their chemical bonds. Without metabolites, the cells can quite literally starve to death in a sea of abundance—yet they persist in releasing the es…

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