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Apoptosis, a form of programmed cell death, is a coordinated and step-wise series of biochemical reactions resulting in the ordered disassembly of a cell from an organism. This normal biological process is required for proper organ development during embryogenesis and the removal of abnormal cells, such as the cells that are damaged by exposure to pathogens or undergo oncogenic transformation. The switch between cell survival and apoptosis is tightly regulated and critical to the development and well-being of an organism.

Defects in the apoptotic pathway that prevent cell death may lead to developmental abnormalities or unregulated tissue growth, as occurs in cancer. In contrast, pathological increases in apoptotic activity are hallmarks of several disease states including AIDS, neurodegenerative disorders, insulin-dependent diabetes, myocardial infarction and atherosclerosis. Consequently, manipulation of the apoptotic process is essential to better understand the development of various diseases and to discover potential therapeutic targets.

Cytology of Apoptosis

Cytology of Apoptosis

Induction of apoptosis evokes several significant biomolecular and morphological changes, some of which are commonly used as markers of apoptosis. These events lead to major phenotypic alterations, highlighted in the figure above. Apoptosis concludes with the formation of apoptotic bodies, which are cleared by phagocytes or neighboring cells.

Key Markers of Apoptosis

  • Activation of apoptotic signaling cascades including the Bcl-2 family
  • Phosphatidylserine exposure on the outer leaflet of the plasma membrane
  • Release of cytochrome c from mitochondria
  • Activation of caspases
  • Cleavage of specific caspase substrates
  • DNA fragmentation

Explore Methods for Detecting Apoptosis