The Evolution of a Mechanism of Cell Suicide

Bioessays. 1999 Jan;21(1):84-8. doi: 10.1002/(SICI)1521-1878(199901)21:1<84::AID-BIES11>3.0.CO;2-0.


In the vertebrates, programmed cell death or apoptosis frequently involves the relocalization of mitochondrial cytochrome c to the cytoplasm. This prominent role in the regulation of apoptosis is in addition to the primary function of cytochrome c in the mitochondrial electron transport chain. These seemingly divergent roles become plausible when considering the symbiotic origin of the mitochondrion. Symbiosis involves conflicts between levels of selection, in this case between the primitive host cell and the protomitochondria. In an aerobic environment, selection on the protomitochondria may have favored routine manipulations of the host cell's phenotype using products and by-products of oxidative phosphorylation, in particular reactive oxygen species (ROS). Blocking the mitochondrial electron transport chain by removing cytochrome c enhances the production of ROS; thus cytochrome c release by protomitochondria may have altered the host cell's phenotype via enhanced ROS production. Subsequently, this signaling pathway may have been refined by selection so that cytochrome c itself became the trigger for changes in the host's phenotype. A mechanism of apoptosis in metazoans may thus be a vestige of evolutionary conflicts within the eukaryotic cell.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Apoptosis*
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Cytochrome c Group / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Mitochondria / physiology*


  • Cytochrome c Group