Origin and evolution of eukaryotic apoptosis: the bacterial connection

Cell Death Differ. 2002 Apr;9(4):394-404. doi: 10.1038/sj.cdd.4400991.


The availability of numerous complete genome sequences of prokaryotes and several eukaryotic genome sequences provides for new insights into the origin of unique functional systems of the eukaryotes. Several key enzymes of the apoptotic machinery, including the paracaspase and metacaspase families of the caspase-like protease superfamily, apoptotic ATPases and NACHT family NTPases, and mitochondrial HtrA-like proteases, have diverse homologs in bacteria, but not in archaea. Phylogenetic analysis strongly suggests a mitochondrial origin for metacaspases and the HtrA-like proteases, whereas acquisition from Actinomycetes appears to be the most likely scenario for AP-ATPases. The homologs of apoptotic proteins are particularly abundant and diverse in bacteria that undergo complex development, such as Actinomycetes, Cyanobacteria and alpha-proteobacteria, the latter being progenitors of the mitochondria. In these bacteria, the apoptosis-related domains typically form multidomain proteins, which are known or inferred to participate in signal transduction and regulation of gene expression. Some of these bacterial multidomain proteins contain fusions between apoptosis-related domains, such as AP-ATPase fused with a metacaspase or a TIR domain. Thus, bacterial homologs of eukaryotic apoptotic machinery components might functionally and physically interact with each other as parts of signaling pathways that remain to be investigated. An emerging scenario of the origin of the eukaryotic apoptotic system involves acquisition of several central apoptotic effectors as a consequence of mitochondrial endosymbiosis and probably also as a result of subsequent, additional horizontal gene transfer events, which was followed by recruitment of newly emerging eukaryotic domains as adaptors.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Apoptosis / genetics*
  • Apoptosis Inducing Factor
  • Bacteria / genetics*
  • Bacteria / growth & development
  • Biological Evolution
  • Caspases / genetics
  • Caspases / physiology
  • Eukaryotic Cells / cytology
  • Eukaryotic Cells / physiology*
  • Flavoproteins / physiology
  • Heat-Shock Proteins*
  • Membrane Proteins / physiology
  • Mitochondria / genetics
  • Mitochondria / physiology
  • Models, Genetic
  • Periplasmic Proteins*
  • Phylogeny
  • Sequence Homology
  • Serine Endopeptidases / genetics
  • Signal Transduction


  • Apoptosis Inducing Factor
  • Flavoproteins
  • Heat-Shock Proteins
  • Membrane Proteins
  • Periplasmic Proteins
  • DegP protease
  • Serine Endopeptidases
  • Caspases