Mitochondria and apoptosis: HQ or high-security prison?

J Clin Immunol. 1999 Nov;19(6):378-87. doi: 10.1023/a:1020550716138.


Whether we view the mitochondria as the headquarters for the leader of a crack suicide squad or as a prison for the leader of a militant coup, the role of the mitochondria in the apoptotic process is now well established. During apoptosis the integrity of the mitochondria is breeched, the mitochondrial transmembrane potential drops, the electron transport chain is disrupted. and proteins from the mitochondrial intermembrane space (MIS) such as cytochrome c are released into the cytosol, although not necessarily in that order. In the cytosol, cytochrome c forms part of a proteinaceous complex that directly activates caspase-9, one of the apical enzymes responsible for the dismantling of the cell. In this way a mitochondrial factor which is normally locked away from the rest of the cell can directly trigger apoptosis. The need to regulate the release of cytochrome c suggests that the mitochondria may be the decision center for whether a cell lives or dies. Various hypotheses have been formulated to explain how proteins of the MIS are released and how this process is regulated. These include the Bcl-2-regulated opening of a permeability transition pore or an increase in mitochondrial transmembrane potential followed by outer membrane rupture. It remains to be clarified which mitochondria specific events are essential for apoptosis and which are merely consequences of apoptosis.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Apoptosis*
  • Caspases / physiology
  • Cytochrome c Group / physiology
  • Enzyme Activation
  • Humans
  • Membrane Potentials
  • Mitochondria / physiology*
  • Permeability


  • Cytochrome c Group
  • Caspases