Apoptosis is a cell death program that is executed by the caspases, a family of cysteine proteases that typically cleave after aspartate residues during a proteolytic cascade that systematically dismantles the dying cell. Extensive signaling crosstalk occurs between caspase-mediated proteolysis and kinase-mediated phosphorylation, enabling integration of signals from multiple pathways into the decision to commit to apoptosis. A new study from Maluch et al. examines how phosphorylation within caspase cleavage sites impacts the efficiency of substrate cleavage. The results demonstrate that while phosphorylation in close proximity to the scissile bond is generally inhibitory, it does not necessarily abrogate substrate cleavage, but instead attenuates the rate. In some cases, this inhibition can be overcome by additional favorable substrate features. These findings suggest potential nuanced physiological roles for phosphorylation of caspase substrates with exciting implications for targeting caspases with chemical probes and therapeutics.

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