Apoptosis can be thought of as a signalling cascade that results in the death of the cell. Properly executed apoptosis is critically important for both development and homoeostasis of most animals. Accordingly, defects in apoptosis can contribute to the development of autoimmune disorders, neurological diseases and cancer. Broadly speaking, there are two main pathways by which a cell can engage apoptosis: the extrinsic apoptotic pathway and the intrinsic apoptotic pathway. At the centre of the intrinsic apoptotic signalling pathway lies the mitochondrion, which, in addition to its role as the bioenergetic centre of the cell, is also the cell’s reservoir of pro-death factors which reside in the mitochondrial IMS (intermembrane space). During intrinsic apoptosis, pores are formed in the OMM (outer mitochondrial membrane) of the mitochondria in a process termed MOMP (mitochondrial outer membrane permeabilization). This allows for the release of IMS proteins; once released during MOMP, some IMS proteins, notably cytochrome c and Smac/DIABLO (Second mitochondria-derived activator of caspase/direct inhibitor of apoptosis-binding protein with low pI), promote caspase activation and subsequent cleavage of structural and regulatory proteins in the cytoplasm and the nucleus, leading to the demise of the cell. MOMP is achieved through the co-ordinated actions of pro-apoptotic members and inhibited by anti-apoptotic members of the Bcl-2 family of proteins. Other aspects of mitochondrial physiology, such as mitochondrial bioenergetics and dynamics, are also involved in processes of cell death that proceed through the mitochondria. Proper regulation of these mitochondrial functions is vitally important for the life and death of the cell and for the organism as a whole.

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