Autophagy is the major intracellular degradation system by which cytoplasmic materials are delivered to and degraded in the lysosome. However, the purpose of autophagy is not the simple elimination of materials, but instead, autophagy serves as a dynamic recycling system that produces new building blocks and energy for cellular renovation and homeostasis. Here we provide a multidisciplinary review of our current understanding of autophagy's role in metabolic adaptation, intracellular quality control, and renovation during development and differentiation. We also explore how recent mouse models in combination with advances in human genetics are providing key insights into how the impairment or activation of autophagy contributes to pathogenesis of diverse diseases, from neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson disease to inflammatory disorders such as Crohn disease. Copyright © 2011 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.