A cell may die either intentionally (usually referred to as apoptosis or programmed cell death, though also once known also as “cellular suicide”), or unintentionally (necrosis). The microscopic observation of these two processes shows strikingly different mechanisms at work. In apoptosis, the cell begins to shrink and lose shape as the cytoskeleton is degraded, then the organelles appear to pack together, except for the nucleus. Inside the nucleus, the chromatin condenses and attaches to the nuclear envelope, which then loses its integrity and starts to break apart. The cell membrane begins to show irregularities, descriptively known as blebs, and eventually, the cell breaks apart into vesicles that are neatly cleaned up by phagocytes drawn to the site by apoptotic signals emitted by the dying cell. Necrosis, on the other hand, is quite literally a mess. The cell appears to swell and the plasma membrane begins to lose its integrity. It is soon catastrophically leaking cytoplasm, and leaves behind cell debris that can accumulate and trigger necrotic death of adjacent cells.
Apoptosis is ultimately put into action by a cascade of caspases, a family of proteolytic enzymes. This family of enzymes is generally produced as proenzymes that are activated by other members of the caspase family. Thus a cascade effect occurs, after the initial trigger activating one set of caspases, they can then cleave a variety of proteins including procaspases that are thereby activated and can hydrolyze even more proteins, including yet another type of procaspase, and so on. Of course, other enzymes are also activated and participate by widening the response, activating other groups of proteases and apoptotic enzymes. Triggering the apoptotic cascade is usually one of two general pathways: an internal trigger, arising from damage to the mitochondria, and an external trigger, started by binding an extracellular signal molecule to activate a “death receptor”. Although there are many variations on both triggers, they follow similar paths to the examples we will use here.
If you recall the section on electron transport in oxidative phosphorylation, then you may also recall the soluble electron carrier, cytochrome c. This protein is exclusively found in the mitochondrial matrix under normal circumstances, so its presence in the cytoplasm can be taken to indicate mitochondria in distress. Given the importance of mitochondria in providing the energy for most aerobic cells to carry out their normal life, such distress is an early indicator that the cell will die soon. The diagram below shows a sample pathway that can cause cytochrome c leakage from the mitochondria, but mitochondria can also just “get old”, and if the cell is “programmed” (by transcription factors) not to replace failing components, then as the mitochondrial membranes lose integrity and allow cytochrome c out, it is a clear signal to initiate termination protocols, to use the parlance of science fiction novels.
The cytochrome c is bound by APAF-1 (apoptotic protease activating factor 1) which oligomerizes to form an apoptosome made of 7 APAF-1 moecules and 7 cytochrome c molecules. The apoptosome binds and activates procaspase-9 to initiate a caspase cascade that continues with activation of procaspase-3. When the mitochondria leaks cytochrome c, it also leaks another apoptotic protein, SMAC/Diablo. This protein, among other functions, inhibits IAP (inhibitor of apoptosis)-family proteins. The IAP proteins normally inhibit caspase activation both directly and indirectly to prevent cell death, and SMAC/Diablo blocks that inhibition.
When death receptors are activated, the subsequent caspase cascade does not involve the mitochondria or APAF-1. The best studied case, FasR (Fas receptor) activates caspases 2, 8, and 10 by clipping procaspases and by releasing caspases from inhibiting complexes. These activate caspases 3, 6, and 7, which leads to the final stages of apoptosis. In both internally and externally triggered apoptosis, the final steps are the same: some of the final targets of the caspases are the nuclear lamins and ICAD (inhibitor of caspase-activated DNase). Destroying the nuclear lamins leads to fragmentation of the nuclear envelope, while removing ICAD activated the caspase-activated DNase (CAD) which then be- gins to digest the DNA.
Why does the apoptosis mechanism exist? There are two major (and many other) reasons for apoptosis. The first is developmental. In the development of an organism, the most effective strategy is often to have overgrowth of cells that are then pruned back to the proper formations. Examples of this are the apoptotic death of tissue between initially connected fingers and toes (we humans start with webbed fingers and toes embryonically), and death of unconnected or improperly connected neurons. The latter case also illustrates a fundamental principle in mammalian cell biology, and most other vertebrates as well: cells require signals (trophic factors) to stay alive. In this example, the neurons that do not make proper connections to a target cell do not receive the necessary trophic factor (secreted by the target). This leads to apoptotic death of the unconnected neuron. In fact, if apoptosis is blocked due to mutation to a gene in the pathway, there is severe overgrowth of the brain and spinal cord, causing serious mal- function and craniofacial deformities. Thus in development, apoptosis is necessary to control the growth of different parts of a metazoan organism.
The other major function for apoptosis is to kill dangerous cells. In some cases, these may be cells infected by a pathogen. In others, the cells have accumulated mutations that do have affected the DNA error-correction system or cell-cycle checkpoints. When the former occurs, each generation has an increased likelihood of even more mutations. It is important to activate apoptosis in such cells before they have a chance to acquire errors that removes all cell cycle checkpoints, allowing unchecked cell proliferation. This could lead to tumor formation and potentially cancer (see next chapter). When such cells need to be killed for the benefit of the organism, it may happen by the triggering of an internal sensor such as mitochondrial damage, or by external means, such as an immune system cell recognizing an infected cell.