Apoptosis (from Ancient Greek ἀπόπτωσις, apóptōsis, “falling off”) is a form of programmed cell death that occurs in multicellular organisms. Biochemical events lead to characteristic cell changes (morphology) and death. These changes include blebbing, cell shrinkage, nuclear fragmentation, chromatin condensation, DNA fragmentation, and mRNA decay. The average adult human loses between 50 and 70 billion cells each day due to apoptosis. For an average human child between the ages of 8 and 14, approximately 20–30 billion cells die per day.
In contrast to necrosis, which is a form of traumatic cell death that results from acute cellular injury, apoptosis is a highly regulated and controlled process that confers advantages during an organism’s life cycle. For example, the separation of fingers and toes in a developing human embryo occurs because cells between the digits undergo apoptosis. Unlike necrosis, apoptosis produces cell fragments called apoptotic bodies that phagocytes are able to engulf and remove before the contents of the cell can spill out onto surrounding cells and cause damage to them.
Because apoptosis cannot stop once it has begun, it is a highly regulated process. Apoptosis can be initiated through one of two pathways. In the intrinsic pathway the cell kills itself because it senses cell stress, while in the extrinsic pathway the cell kills itself because of signals from other cells. Weak external signals may also activate the intrinsic pathway of apoptosis. Both pathways induce cell death by activating caspases, which are proteases, or enzymes that degrade proteins. The two pathways both activate initiator caspases, which then activate executioner caspases, which then kill the cell by degrading proteins indiscriminately.
In addition to its importance as a biological phenomenon, defective apoptotic processes have been implicated in a wide variety of diseases. Excessive apoptosis causes atrophy, whereas an insufficient amount results in uncontrolled cell proliferation, such as cancer. Some factors like Fas receptors and caspases promote apoptosis, while some members of the Bcl-2 family of proteins inhibit apoptosis.
The initiation of apoptosis is tightly regulated by activation mechanisms, because once apoptosis has begun, it inevitably leads to the death of the cell. The two best-understood activation mechanisms are the intrinsic pathway (also called the mitochondrial pathway) and the extrinsic pathway. The intrinsic pathway is activated by intracellular signals generated when cells are stressed and depends on the release of proteins from the intermembrane space of mitochondria. The extrinsic pathway is activated by extracellular ligands binding to cell-surface death receptors, which leads to the formation of the death-inducing signaling complex (DISC).
A cell initiates intracellular apoptotic signaling in response to a stress, which may bring about cell suicide. The binding of nuclear receptors by glucocorticoids, heat, radiation viral infection, hypoxia, increased intracellular concentration of free fatty acids and increased intracellular calcium concentration, for example, by damage to the membrane, can all trigger the release of intracellular apoptotic signals by a damaged cell. A number of cellular components, such as poly ADP ribose polymerase, may also help regulate apoptosis. Single cell fluctuations have been observed in experimental studies of stress induced apoptosis.
Before the actual process of cell death is precipitated by enzymes, apoptotic signals must cause regulatory proteins to initiate the apoptosis pathway. This step allows those signals to cause cell death, or the process to be stopped, should the cell no longer need to die. Several proteins are involved, but two main methods of regulation have been identified: the targeting of mitochondria functionality, or directly transducing the signal via adaptor proteins to the apoptotic mechanisms. An extrinsic pathway for initiation identified in several toxin studies is an increase in calcium concentration within a cell caused by drug activity, which also can cause apoptosis via a calcium binding protease calpain.