Since the 19th century, cell death has been appreciated but until the 20th century no experimental investigation had taken place. 1 It was later suggested that programmed cell death (PCD) has been a vital mechanism in the survival of multicellular organisms.2 Cell death is an ongoing process in the human body before and after birth. In humans, both physiological and pathological PCD occur to maintain homeostasis. It plays an important role in protecting the body from infections to diseases such as cancer. Cell death is often described as a double edged sword with regards to its beneficial and harmful characteristics. Uncontrolled cell death has been an explanation for many neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. In contrast inhibition of cell death has often been the cause of developing cancer. This essay will outline plus examine the mechanisms of the different cell deaths which occur in the body before and after birth, discussing the pathway of diseases caused by both excessive and insufficient cell death.
Cell death before birth
PCD is an important mechanism in the formation of limbs during the embryonic development period. Apoptosis is responsible for the death of extra cells which are produced to ensure that there is no shortage during organ and limb development. The cells which make up the extra tissues are broken down in the interdigital regions. This is controlled by signaling proteins. Inhibition of transferring growth factors could lead to anomalies in the limb development and is the explanation for conditions referred to as syndactyly and polydactyly.3 Polydactyly (see figure 1) limb defect emerges from the lack of apoptosis and formation of extra fingers or toes during embryogenesis.3 On the other hand osseous syndactyly is a condition where there is excessive cell death resulting in failure of the digital rays to separate consequently leading to the formation of joined finger or toes (see figure 2) 3. PCD is important in the development of limbs in embryos but it is essential that apoptosis is controlled to benefit the body rather than contributing to disease. This process continues in the body after birth.
Types of Cell Death
Necrosis is a pathological cell death which follows a different mechanism from the PCD (which has evolved to benefit the body). Therefore it is described as a passive and non-hereditary PCD.6 This death mechanism is distinct from the PCD in several ways; from the structural features (necrotic cells are enlarged in comparison to the normal apoptotic cells) the timing of the pathways (occurs over a period of several hours).7 There are many different conditions which can initiate cell death by necrosis. One trigger is the change in the permeability of the ion channels in the cell surface membrane. This leads to the activation of lysosome rupture thus resulting in DNA fragmentation and consequently cell death. It has been suggested that necrotic cell death is a major component in the damage to the nervous system during neurodegeneration.8 Necrosis is a form of cell death which frequently contributes to disease in the human body.
In comparison apoptosis is an evolutionary mechanism for the selective removal of damaged, ageing and unnecessary cells in the body therefore this complex PCD system has many different mechanisms.9 This essay will look at the mitochondrial mediated pathway as the mitochondria is vital to the survival of multicellular organisms. The active central role of mitochondria in PCD had not been evident until the mid 1990s.1 They are thought to be the primary organelles in regulating the apoptotic pathways by responding to stress stimuli including different forms of radiation, environmental factors, genes and DNA damage. These signals to the mitochondria are interpreted by multiple cytosolic or intraorganellar molecules which eventually give rise to adjustments in the outer mitochondrial membrane.1 One of these adjustments could be change in the permeability of the membrane to proteins which would otherwise be present between the inner and the outer mitochondrial membrane.10 These proteins escape the mitochondria and initiate apoptosis by activating caspase-3. 1 This is described as the intrinsic pathway (see figure3)1. The mitochondria can also follow the extrinsic pathway which is initiated by death ligands (see figure3)1. Here death ligands generate signals which can either directly engage the mitochondria through a series of events activating the effector (caspase-3) or promote the cleavage of non-caspase substrates stimulating changes in the outer mitochondrial membrane. This causes the release of apoptogenic factors.1 Apoptosis also has physiological mechanisms and is not possible for the cell to carry out these it will initiate type II PCD (autophagy) as an alternative .1 Overall necrotic and apoptotic cell deaths are relatively different (see figure 3).9
Autophagy is another form of PCD which is induced by stress situations. In this cell death pathway autophagosomes deliver intercellular proteins and organelles to lysosomes for destruction.6 One of the common stress stimuli which can induce autophagy is oxidative stress which results in myocardial infarction. Here autophagy is not a contributor to ischaemic cardiac diseases but is an adaptive response demonstrating its role in aiding health .6 Although autophagy is viewed as a survival assisting mechanism, just like apoptosis excessive autophagy leads to undesirable cell death. It can be induced by both extracellular and intercellular signals.6 Due to its stress stimuli response, prolonged exposure to the signals will result in the development of diseases. One of the common branches of diseases caused by excessive cell death are the neurodegenerative diseases.
Figure 3. The Mitochondrial Death Pathway; Schematic representation comparing components of the intrinsic and extrinsic apoptotic pathways in C.elegans and mammals.
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