Autophagic cell death and its execution by lysosomal cathepsins

Arch Histol Cytol. 2001 Aug;64(3):233-46. doi: 10.1679/aohc.64.233.


In the last decade, the molecular mechanisms of apoptosis, a major type of active cell death (type I cell death) have largely been clarified in mammalian cells. Particularly, the caspase family of proteinases has been shown to play crucial roles in the execution of apoptosis. Differing from apoptosis, type II cell death is known to be associated with autophagosomes/autolysosomes and appear in the developing nervous system (CLARKE, 1990). We have previously shown that delayed neuronal death occurring in the CA1 pyramidal layer of the gerbil hippocampus after brief forebrain ischemia is apoptotic in nature and autophagosomes/autolysosomes abundantly appear in the neurons before DNA fragmentation. To further understand the roles of autophagosomes/autolysosomes in active cell death, we examined the apoptosis of PC12 cells using morphological and biochemical techniques. PC12 cells are known to undergo apoptosis when cultured in the absence of serum. In such an environment, the mitochondrial pathway of apoptosis is activated; cytochrome c is released from mitochondria, and caspase-9/caspase-3 are activated. We have first examined morphological features of PC12 cells during the apoptotic process following serum deprivation, and found that autophagy is induced from the early stage of the process in the cells before typical nuclear changes. When autophagy is inhibited in the cells by 3-methyladenine, an autophagy inhibitor, they are largely protected from apoptosis. In relation to the induction of autophagy in PC12 cells following serum deprivation, immunoreactivity, protein amounts, and the proteolytic activity of lysosomal proteinases, particularly cathepsins B and D, are all greatly altered; those of cathepsin B drastically decrease in the cells from the early stage of serum-deprived cultures, whereas those of cathepsin D increase. Moreover, PC12 cells overexpressing cathepsin D undergo apoptosis more rapidly in serum-deprived cultures than wild-type cells, whereas those overexpressing cathepsin B increase the viability. These lines of evidence suggest that autophagy is involved in PC12 cell death following serum deprivation, this type of cell death being regulated by lysosomal proteinases, cathepsins B and D, downstream autophagy.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Apoptosis*
  • Caspases / metabolism
  • Cathepsin B / physiology*
  • Cathepsin D / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Lysosomes / metabolism
  • Phagocytosis / physiology*


  • Caspases
  • Cathepsin B
  • Cathepsin D