Apoptosis is a form of active cell death engaged by developmental cues as well as many different cellular stresses in which the dying cell essentially 'packages' itself for removal. The process of apoptotic cell death, as defined at the molecular level, is unique to the Metazoa (animals). Yet active cell death exists in non-animal organisms, and in some cases molecules involved in such death show some sequence similarities to those involved in apoptosis, leading to extensive speculation regarding the evolution of apoptosis. Here, we examine such speculation from the perspective of the functional properties of molecules of the mitochondrial apoptotic cell death pathway. We suggest scenarios for the evolution of one pathway of apoptosis, the mitochondrial pathway, and consider how they might be tested. We conclude with a 'Just So Story' of how the mitochondrial pathway of apoptosis might have evolved during eukaryotic evolution.
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