Evolution of apoptosis-like programmed cell death in unicellular protozoan parasites

Parasit Vectors. 2011 Mar 25;4:44. doi: 10.1186/1756-3305-4-44.


Apoptosis-like programmed cell death (PCD) has recently been described in multiple taxa of unicellular protists, including the protozoan parasites Plasmodium, Trypanosoma and Leishmania. Apoptosis-like PCD in protozoan parasites shares a number of morphological features with programmed cell death in multicellular organisms. However, both the evolutionary explanations and mechanisms involved in parasite PCD are poorly understood. Explaining why unicellular organisms appear to undergo 'suicide' is a challenge for evolutionary biology and uncovering death executors and pathways is a challenge for molecular and cell biology. Bioinformatics has the potential to integrate these approaches by revealing homologies in the PCD machinery of diverse taxa and evaluating their evolutionary trajectories. As the molecular mechanisms of apoptosis in model organisms are well characterised, and recent data suggest similar mechanisms operate in protozoan parasites, key questions can now be addressed. These questions include: which elements of apoptosis machinery appear to be shared between protozoan parasites and multicellular taxa and, have these mechanisms arisen through convergent or divergent evolution? We use bioinformatics to address these questions and our analyses suggest that apoptosis mechanisms in protozoan parasites and other taxa have diverged during their evolution, that some apoptosis factors are shared across taxa whilst others have been replaced by proteins with similar biochemical activities.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Apoptosis*
  • Computational Biology / methods
  • Evolution, Molecular
  • Leishmania / physiology*
  • Plasmodium / physiology*
  • Trypanosoma / physiology*