Caspases and their substrates

Cell Death Differ. 2017 Aug;24(8):1380-1389. doi: 10.1038/cdd.2017.44. Epub 2017 May 12.


Protease biology is intimately linked to the functional consequences of substrate cleavage events. Human caspases are a family of 12 fate-determining cysteine proteases that are best known for driving cell death, either apoptosis or pyroptosis. More recently, caspases have been shown to be involved in other cellular remodeling events as well including stem cell fate determination, spermatogenesis, and erythroid differentiation. Recent global proteomics methods enable characterization of the substrates that caspases cleave in live cells and cell extracts. The number of substrate targets identified for individual caspases can vary widely ranging from only a (few) dozen targets for caspases-4, -5, -9, and -14 to hundreds of targets for caspases-1, -2, -3, -6, -7, and -8. Proteomic studies characterizing the rates of target cleavage show that each caspase has a preferred substrate cohort that sometimes overlaps between caspases, but whose rates of cleavage vary over 500-fold within each group. Determining the functional consequences of discrete proteolytic events within the global substrate pool is a major challenge for the field. From the handful of individual targets that have been studied in detail, there are only a few so far that whose single cleavage event is capable of sparking apoptosis alone, such as cleavage of caspase-3/-7 and BIMEL, or for pyroptosis, gasdermin D. For the most part, it appears that cleavage events function cooperatively in the cell death process to generate a proteolytic synthetic lethal outcome. In contrast to apoptosis, far less is known about caspase biology in non-apoptotic cellular processes, such as cellular remodeling, including which caspases are activated, the mechanisms of their activation and deactivation, and the key substrate targets. Here we survey the progress made in global identification of caspase substrates using proteomics and the exciting new avenues these studies have opened for understanding the molecular logic of substrate cleavage in apoptotic and non-apoptotic processes.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bcl-2-Like Protein 11 / genetics*
  • Bcl-2-Like Protein 11 / metabolism
  • Caspases / genetics*
  • Caspases / metabolism
  • Cell Differentiation
  • Eukaryotic Cells / cytology
  • Eukaryotic Cells / enzymology*
  • Gene Expression Regulation*
  • Humans
  • Kinetics
  • Neoplasm Proteins / genetics*
  • Neoplasm Proteins / metabolism
  • Proteolysis
  • Pyroptosis / genetics*
  • Signal Transduction
  • Substrate Specificity


  • BCL2L11 protein, human
  • Bcl-2-Like Protein 11
  • GSDMD protein, human
  • Neoplasm Proteins
  • Caspases