Cell death

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Overview of signal transduction pathways involved in apoptosis. Signal transduction pathways.svg
Overview of signal transduction pathways involved in apoptosis.

Cell death is the event of a biological cell ceasing to carry out its functions. This may be the result of the natural process of old cells dying and being replaced by new ones, or may result from such factors as disease, localized injury, or the death of the organism of which the cells are part. Apoptosis or Type I cell-death, and autophagy or Type II cell-death are both forms of programmed cell death, while necrosis is a non-physiological process that occurs as a result of infection or injury. [1]


Programmed cell death

Programmed cell death (or PCD) is cell death mediated by an intracellular program. [2] [3] PCD is carried out in a regulated process, which usually confers advantage during an organism's life-cycle. For example, the differentiation of fingers and toes in a developing human embryo occurs because cells between the fingers apoptose; the result is that the digits separate. PCD serves fundamental functions during both plant and metazoa (multicellular animals) tissue development.


Morphological changes associated with apoptosis Apoptotic cell disassembly.png
Morphological changes associated with apoptosis

Apoptosis is the process of programmed cell death (PCD) that may occur in multicellular organisms. [3] Biochemical events lead to characteristic cell changes (morphology) and death. These changes include blebbing, cell shrinkage, nuclear fragmentation, chromatin condensation, and chromosomal DNA fragmentation. It is now thought that – in a developmental context – cells are induced to positively commit suicide whilst in a homeostatic context; the absence of certain survival factors may provide the impetus for suicide. There appears to be some variation in the morphology and indeed the biochemistry of these suicide pathways; some treading the path of "apoptosis", others following a more generalized pathway to deletion, but both usually being genetically and synthetically motivated. There is some evidence that certain symptoms of "apoptosis" such as endonuclease activation can be spuriously induced without engaging a genetic cascade, however, presumably true apoptosis and programmed cell death must be genetically mediated. It is also becoming clear that mitosis and apoptosis are toggled or linked in some way and that the balance achieved depends on signals received from appropriate growth or survival factors. [4]

Example events in autophagy Autophagy.jpg
Example events in autophagy


Autophagy is cytoplasmic , characterized by the formation of large vacuoles that eat away organelles in a specific sequence prior to the destruction of the nucleus. [5] Macroautophagy, often referred to as autophagy, is a catabolic process that results in the autophagosomic-lysosomal degradation of bulk cytoplasmic contents, abnormal protein aggregates, and excess or damaged organelles. Autophagy is generally activated by conditions of nutrient deprivation but has also been associated with physiological as well as pathological processes such as development, differentiation, neurodegenerative diseases, stress, infection and cancer.

Other variations of PCD

Other pathways of programmed cell death have been discovered. [6] Called "non-apoptotic programmed cell-death" (or "caspase-independent programmed cell-death"), these alternative routes to death are as efficient as apoptosis and can function as either backup mechanisms or the main type of PCD.

Some such forms of programmed cell death are anoikis, almost identical to apoptosis except in its induction; cornification, a form of cell death exclusive to the eyes; excitotoxicity; ferroptosis, an iron-dependent form of cell death [7] and Wallerian degeneration.

Plant cells undergo particular processes of PCD similar to autophagic cell death. However, some common features of PCD are highly conserved in both plants and metazoa.

Activation-induced cell death (AICD) is a programmed cell death caused by the interaction of Fas receptor (Fas, CD95)and Fas ligand (FasL, CD95 ligand). [8] It occurs as a result of repeated stimulation of specific T-cell receptors (TCR) and it helps to maintain the periphery immune tolerance. [9] Therefore, an alteration of the process may lead to autoimmune diseases. [8] In the other words AICD is the negative regulator of activated T-lymphocytes.

Ischemic cell death, or oncosis, is a form of accidental, or passive cell death that is often considered a lethal injury. The process is characterized by mitochondrial swelling, cytoplasm vacuolization, and swelling of the nucleus and cytoplasm. [10]

Mitotic catastrophe is a mode of cell death that is due to premature or inappropriate entry of cells into mitosis. It is the most common mode of cell death in cancer cells exposed to ionizing radiation and many other anti-cancer treatments. [11]

Immunogenic cell death or immunogenic apoptosis is a form of cell death caused by some cytostatic agents such as anthracyclines, oxaliplatin and bortezomib, or radiotherapy and photodynamic therapy (PDT). [12]

Pyroptosis is a highly inflammatory form of programmed cell death that occurs most frequently upon infection with intracellular pathogens and is likely to form part of the antimicrobial response in myeloid cells. [13]

Necrotic cell death

Necrosis is cell death where a cell has been badly damaged through external forces such as trauma or infection and occurs in several different forms. In necrosis, a cell undergoes swelling, followed by uncontrolled rupture of the cell membrane with cell contents being expelled. These cell contents often then go on to cause inflammation in nearby cells. [14] A form of programmed necrosis, called necroptosis, has been recognized as an alternative form of programmed cell death. It is hypothesized that necroptosis can serve as a cell-death backup to apoptosis when the apoptosis signaling is blocked by endogenous or exogenous factors such as viruses or mutations. Necroptotic pathways are associated with death receptors such as the tumor necrosis factor receptor 1. [14]

Field of study and etymology

The term "cell necrobiology" has been used to describe the life processes associated with morphological, biochemical, and molecular changes which predispose, precede, and accompany cell death, as well as the consequences and tissue response to cell death. [15] The word is derived from the Greek νεκρό meaning "death", βìο meaning "life", and λόγος meaning "the study of". The term was initially coined to broadly define investigations of the changes that accompany cell death, detected and measured by multiparameter flow- and laser scanning- cytometry. [13] It has been used to describe the real-time changes during cell death, detected by flow cytometry. [16]

See also

Related Research Articles

Apoptosis Programmed cell death in multicellular organisms

Apoptosis is a form of programmed cell death that occurs in multicellular organisms. Biochemical events lead to characteristic cell changes (morphology) and death. These changes include blebbing, cell shrinkage, nuclear fragmentation, chromatin condensation, DNA fragmentation, and mRNA decay. The average adult human loses between 50 and 70 billion cells each day due to apoptosis. For an average human child between the ages of 8 and 14, approximately 20–30 billion cells die per day.

Necrosis Unprogrammed cell death caused by external cell injury

Necrosis is a form of cell injury which results in the premature death of cells in living tissue by autolysis. Necrosis is caused by factors external to the cell or tissue, such as infection, or trauma which result in the unregulated digestion of cell components. In contrast, apoptosis is a naturally occurring programmed and targeted cause of cellular death. While apoptosis often provides beneficial effects to the organism, necrosis is almost always detrimental and can be fatal.

Caspase Family of cysteine proteases

Caspases are a family of protease enzymes playing essential roles in programmed cell death. They are named caspases due to their specific cysteine protease activity – a cysteine in its active site nucleophilically attacks and cleaves a target protein only after an aspartic acid residue. As of 2009, there are 12 confirmed caspases in humans and 10 in mice, carrying out a variety of cellular functions.

Programmed cell death is the death of a cell as a result of events inside of a cell, such as apoptosis or autophagy. PCD is carried out in a biological process, which usually confers advantage during an organism's lifecycle. For example, the differentiation of fingers and toes in a developing human embryo occurs because cells between the fingers apoptose; the result is that the digits are separate. PCD serves fundamental functions during both plant and animal tissue development.

Autophagy Cellular catabolic process in which cells digest parts of their own cytoplasm

Autophagy is the natural, conserved degradation of the cell that removes unnecessary or dysfunctional components through a lysosome-dependent regulated mechanism. It allows the orderly degradation and recycling of cellular components. Although initially characterized as a primordial degradation pathway induced to protect against starvation, it has become increasingly clear that autophagy also plays a major role in the homeostasis of non-starved cells. Defects in autophagy have been linked to various human diseases, including neurodegeneration and cancer, and interest in modulating autophagy as a potential treatment for these diseases has grown rapidly.

Fas ligand

Fas ligand is a type-II transmembrane protein that belongs to the tumor necrosis factor (TNF) family. Its binding with its receptor induces apoptosis. Fas ligand/receptor interactions play an important role in the regulation of the immune system and the progression of cancer.


In the field of cell biology, TNF-related apoptosis-inducing ligand (TRAIL), is a protein functioning as a ligand that induces the process of cell death called apoptosis.

Follicular atresia is the breakdown of the ovarian follicles, which consist of an oocyte surrounded by granulosa cells and internal and external theca cells. It occurs continually throughout a woman’s life, as they are born with millions of follicles but will only ovulate around 400 times in their lifetime. Typically around 20 follicles mature each month but only a single follicle is ovulated; the follicle from which the oocyte was released becomes the corpus luteum. The rest undergo atresia.

Fas receptor

The Fas receptor, also known as Fas, FasR, apoptosis antigen 1, cluster of differentiation 95 (CD95) or tumor necrosis factor receptor superfamily member 6 (TNFRSF6), is a protein that in humans is encoded by the FAS gene. Fas was first identified using a monoclonal antibody generated by immunizing mice with the FS-7 cell line. Thus, the name Fas is derived from FS-7-associated surface antigen.

Death-inducing signaling complex

The death-inducing signaling complex or DISC is a multi-protein complex formed by members of the "death receptor" family of apoptosis-inducing cellular receptors. A typical example is FasR, which forms the DISC upon trimerization as a result of its ligand (FasL) binding. The DISC is composed of the death receptor, FADD, and caspase 8. It transduces a downstream signal cascade resulting in apoptosis.


Fas-associated protein with death domain (FADD), also called MORT1, is encoded by the FADD gene on the 11q13.3 region of chromosome 11 in humans.

Caspase 8

Caspase-8 is a caspase protein, encoded by the CASP8 gene. It most likely acts upon caspase-3. CASP8 orthologs have been identified in numerous mammals for which complete genome data are available. These unique orthologs are also present in birds.


Receptor-interacting serine/threonine-protein kinase 1 (RIPK1) functions in a variety of cellular pathways related to both cell survival and death. In terms of cell death, RIPK1 plays a role in apoptosis and necroptosis. Some of the cell survival pathways RIPK1 participates in include NF-κB, Akt, and JNK.

Death receptor 6

Death receptor 6 (DR6), also known as tumor necrosis factor receptor superfamily member 21 (TNFRSF21), is a cell surface receptor of the tumor necrosis factor receptor superfamily which activates the JNK and NF-κB pathways. It is mostly expressed in the thymus, spleen and white blood cells. The Gene for DR6 is 78,450 bases long and is found on the 6th chromosome. This is transcribed into a 655 amino acid chain weighing 71.8 kDa. Post transcriptional modifications of this protein include glycosylation on the asparagines at the 82, 141, 252, 257, 278, and 289 amino acid locations.

Death domain

The death domain (DD) is a protein interaction module composed of a bundle of six alpha-helices. DD is a subclass of protein motif known as the death fold and is related in sequence and structure to the death effector domain (DED) and the caspase recruitment domain (CARD), which work in similar pathways and show similar interaction properties. DD bind each other forming oligomers. Mammals have numerous and diverse DD-containing proteins. Within these proteins, the DD domains can be found in combination with other domains, including: CARDs, DEDs, ankyrin repeats, caspase-like folds, kinase domains, leucine zippers, leucine-rich repeats (LRR), TIR domains, and ZU5 domains.

Anticancer genes are genes that, when ectopically overexpressed, specifically destroy tumour cells without harming normal, untransformed cells. This cellular destruction can be due to a variety of mechanisms, such as apoptosis, mitotic catastrophe followed by apoptosis or necrosis, and autophagy. Anticancer genes emerged from studies on cancer cells in the late 1990s. Currently, there have been 291 anticancer genes discovered in the human genome. In order to be classified as an anticancer gene, the gene must have base substitutions leading to missense amino-acid changes, deletions, or insertions leading to frameshifts that alter the protein the gene codes for, increases and decreases in copy-number increases, or gene rearrangements leading to their deregulation.

Necroptosis Programmed form of necrosis, or inflammatory cell death

Necroptosis is a programmed form of necrosis, or inflammatory cell death. Conventionally, necrosis is associated with unprogrammed cell death resulting from cellular damage or infiltration by pathogens, in contrast to orderly, programmed cell death via apoptosis. The discovery of necroptosis showed that cells can execute necrosis in a programmed fashion and that apoptosis is not always the preferred form of cell death. Furthermore, the immunogenic nature of necroptosis favors its participation in certain circumstances, such as aiding in defence against pathogens by the immune system. Necroptosis is well defined as a viral defense mechanism, allowing the cell to undergo "cellular suicide" in a caspase-independent fashion in the presence of viral caspase inhibitors to restrict virus replication. In addition to being a response to disease, necroptosis has also been characterized as a component of inflammatory diseases such as Crohn's disease, pancreatitis, and myocardial infarction.

Immunogenic cell death is any type of cell death eliciting an immune response. Both accidental cell death and regulated cell death can result in immune response. Immunogenic cell death contrasts to forms of cell death that do not elicit any response or even mediate immune tolerance.

Ferroptosis is a type of programmed cell death dependent on iron and characterized by the accumulation of lipid peroxides, and is genetically and biochemically distinct from other forms of regulated cell death such as apoptosis. Ferroptosis is initiated by the failure of the glutathione-dependent antioxidant defenses, resulting in unchecked lipid peroxidation and eventual cell death. Lipophilic antioxidants and iron chelators can prevent ferroptotic cell death. Although the connection between iron and lipid peroxidation has been appreciated for years, it was not until 2012 that Brent Stockwell and Scott J. Dixon coined the term ferroptosis and described several of its key features.

Junying Yuan is the Elizabeth D. Hay Professor of Cell Biology at Harvard Medical School, best known for her work in cell death. Early in her career, she contributed significant findings to the discovery and characterization of apoptosis. More recently, she was responsible for the discovery of the programmed form of necrotic cell death known as necroptosis.


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