During apoptosis, the initiator caspase 9 is activated at the apoptosome after which it activates the executioner caspases 3 and 7 by proteolysis. During this process, caspase 9 is cleaved by caspase 3 at Asp330, and it is often inferred that this proteolytic event represents a feedback amplification loop to accelerate apoptosis. However, there is substantial evidence that proteolysis per se does not activate caspase 9, so an alternative mechanism for amplification must be considered. Cleavage at Asp330 removes a short peptide motif that allows caspase 9 to interact with IAPs (inhibitors of apoptotic proteases), and this event may control the amplification process. We show that, under physiologically relevant conditions, caspase 3, but not caspase 7, can cleave caspase 9, and this does not result in the activation of caspase 9. An IAP antagonist disrupts the inhibitory interaction between XIAP (X-linked IAP) and caspase 9, thereby enhancing activity. We demonstrate that the N-terminal peptide of caspase 9 exposed upon cleavage at Asp330 cannot bind XIAP, whereas the peptide generated by autolytic cleavage of caspase 9 at Asp315 binds XIAP with substantial affinity. Consistent with this, we found that XIAP antagonists were only capable of promoting the activity of caspase 9 when it was cleaved at Asp315, suggesting that only this form is regulated by XIAP. Our results demonstrate that cleavage by caspase 3 does not activate caspase 9, but enhances apoptosis by alleviating XIAP inhibition of the apical caspase.

You do not currently have access to this content.