The machinery of programmed cell death

Pharmacol Ther. 2001 Oct;92(1):57-70. doi: 10.1016/s0163-7258(01)00159-0.


Apoptosis or programmed cell death is an essential physiological process that plays a critical role in development and tissue homeostasis. However, apoptosis is also involved in a wide range of pathological conditions. Apoptotic cells may be characterized by specific morphological and biochemical changes, including cell shrinkage, chromatin condensation, and internucleosomal cleavage of genomic DNA. At the molecular level, apoptosis is tightly regulated and is mainly orchestrated by the activation of the aspartate-specific cysteine protease (caspase) cascade. There are two main pathways leading to the activation of caspases. The first of these depends upon the participation of mitochondria (receptor-independent) and the second involves the interaction of a death receptor with its ligand. Pro- and anti-apoptotic members of the Bcl-2 family regulate the mitochondrial pathway. Cellular stress induces pro-apoptotic Bcl-2 family members to translocate from the cytosol to the mitochondria, where they induce the release of cytochrome c, while the anti-apoptotic Bcl-2 proteins work to prevent cytochrome c release from mitochondria, and thereby preserve cell survival. Once in the cytoplasm, cytochrome c catalyzes the oligomerization of apoptotic protease activating factor-1, thereby promoting the activation of procaspase-9, which then activates procaspase-3. Alternatively, ligation of death receptors, like the tumor necrosis factor receptor-1 and the Fas receptor, causes the activation of procaspase-8. The mature caspase may now either directly activate procaspase-3 or cleave the pro-apoptotic Bcl-2 homology 3-only protein Bid, which then subsequently induces cytochrome c release. Nevertheless, the end result of either pathway is caspase activation and the cleavage of specific cellular substrates, resulting in the morphological and biochemical changes associated with the apoptotic phenotype.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Apoptosis / physiology*
  • Caspases / physiology
  • Humans
  • Mitochondria / physiology
  • Receptors, Tumor Necrosis Factor / physiology


  • Receptors, Tumor Necrosis Factor
  • Caspases