Apoptosis and necrosis: detection, discrimination and phagocytosis

Methods. 2008 Mar;44(3):205-21. doi: 10.1016/j.ymeth.2007.12.001.


Three major morphologies of cell death have been described: apoptosis (type I), cell death associated with autophagy (type II) and necrosis (type III). Apoptosis and cell death associated with autophagy can be distinguished by certain biochemical events. However, necrosis is characterized mostly in negative terms by the absence of caspase activation, cytochrome c release and DNA oligonucleosomal fragmentation. A particular difficulty in defining necrosis is that in the absence of phagocytosis apoptotic cells become secondary necrotic cells with many morphological features of primary necrosis. In this review, we present a selection of techniques that can be used to identify necrosis and to discriminate it from apoptosis. These techniques rely on the following cell death parameters: (1) morphology (time-lapse and transmission electron microscopy and flow fluorocytometry); (2) cell surface markers (phosphatidylserine exposure versus membrane permeability by flow fluorocytometry); (3) intracellular markers (oligonucleosomal DNA fragmentation by flow fluorocytometry, caspase activation, Bid cleavage and cytochrome c release by western blotting); (4) release of extracellular markers in the supernatant (caspases, HMGB-1 and cytokeratin 18). Finally, we report on methods that can be used to examine interactions between dying cells and phagocytes. We illustrate a quantitative method for detecting phagocytosis of dying cells by flow fluorocytometry. We also describe a recently developed approach based on the use of fluid phase tracers and different kind of microscopy, transmission electron and fluorescence microscopy, to characterize the mechanisms used by phagocytes to internalize dying cells.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Apoptosis*
  • Biomarkers
  • Caspases / metabolism
  • Cell Communication
  • Cytochromes c / metabolism
  • DNA Fragmentation
  • Flow Cytometry
  • Humans
  • Microscopy, Electron, Scanning
  • Necrosis*
  • Phagocytosis*
  • Phosphatidylserines / analysis


  • Biomarkers
  • Phosphatidylserines
  • Cytochromes c
  • Caspases