The central effectors of cell death in the immune system

Annu Rev Immunol. 1999;17:781-828. doi: 10.1146/annurev.immunol.17.1.781.


The immune system relies on cell death to maintain lymphoid homeostasis and avoid disease. Recent evidence has indicated that the caspase family of cysteine proteases is a central effector in apoptotic cell death and is absolutely responsible for many of the morphological features of apoptosis. Cell death, however, can occur through caspase-independent and caspase-dependent pathways. In the case of cells that are irreversibly neglected or damaged, death occurs even in the absence of caspase activity. In contrast, healthy cells require caspase activation to undergo cell death induced by surface receptors. This review summarizes the current understanding of these two pathways of cell death in the immune system.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Apoptosis / immunology*
  • Apoptosis / physiology
  • Caspases / genetics
  • Caspases / immunology*
  • Caspases / physiology
  • Cell Death / immunology
  • Cell Death / physiology
  • Cytochrome c Group / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Immune System / cytology*
  • Immune System / enzymology
  • Lymphocytes / cytology
  • Lymphocytes / immunology
  • Lymphocytes / metabolism
  • Mice
  • Mice, Knockout
  • Mitochondria / metabolism
  • Necrosis
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-bcl-2 / metabolism
  • Receptors, Antigen / metabolism


  • Cytochrome c Group
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-bcl-2
  • Receptors, Antigen
  • Caspases