Mitochondria-Judges and Executioners of Cell Death Sentences

Mol Cell. 2016 Mar 3;61(5):695-704. doi: 10.1016/j.molcel.2016.02.019.


Apoptosis is a form of programmed cell death that is critical for basic human development and physiology. One of the more important surprises in cell biology in the last two decades is the extent to which mitochondria represent a physical point of convergence for many apoptosis-inducing signals in mammalian cells. Mitochondria not only adjudicate the decision of whether or not to commit to cell death, but also release toxic proteins culminating in widespread proteolysis, nucleolysis, and cell engulfment. Interactions among BCL-2 family proteins at the mitochondrial outer membrane control the release of these toxic proteins and, by extension, control cellular commitment to apoptosis. This pathway is particularly relevant to cancer treatment, as most cancer chemotherapies trigger mitochondrial-mediated apoptosis. In this Review, we discuss recent advances in the BCL-2 family interactions, their control by upstream factors, and how the mitochondria itself alters these interactions. We also highlight recent clinical insights into mitochondrial-mediated apoptosis and novel cancer therapies that exploit this pathway.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antineoplastic Agents / therapeutic use
  • Apoptosis Regulatory Proteins / metabolism*
  • Apoptosis* / drug effects
  • Humans
  • Mitochondria / drug effects
  • Mitochondria / metabolism*
  • Mitochondria / pathology*
  • Mitochondrial Membrane Transport Proteins / metabolism
  • Mitochondrial Membranes / metabolism
  • Mitochondrial Permeability Transition Pore
  • Molecular Targeted Therapy
  • Neoplasms / drug therapy
  • Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Neoplasms / pathology
  • Permeability
  • Protein Binding
  • Protein Interaction Domains and Motifs
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-bcl-2 / metabolism
  • Signal Transduction* / drug effects


  • Antineoplastic Agents
  • Apoptosis Regulatory Proteins
  • Mitochondrial Membrane Transport Proteins
  • Mitochondrial Permeability Transition Pore
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-bcl-2