Apoptosis: Do Our Cells Really Commit Suicide?

By Antonia Čirjak on January 27 2020 in Environment

A dying cell.
A dying cell.

Apoptosis is also referred to as “cell suicide,” and it is a fundamental process that happens to our cells. It occurs naturally in humans, and it is the body’s way to keep regular checks on mitosis (the process where one cell is divided into two daughter cells). In apoptosis, cells take specific steps in order to die. In other words, “cells commit suicide.”

The Role of Apoptosis

Our bodies go through many biological processes, and apoptosis has a role in some of them, such as aging, embryogenesis, and numerous diseases. However, it is not to be confused with necrosis, because when cells commit suicide (apoptosis), inflammation does not happen.

If apoptosis did not exist, people would not have different toes and fingers. Without cell death, you would not be able to understand this article because your brain cells would not be connecting.  

The role of apoptosis is also vital for our immune system. In viral infections, apoptosis kills off infected cells before they overflow with the virus. This is a crucial role that helps to prevent the virus from spreading. There are many treatments like anti-inflammatories, non-steroid, and anticancer, which happen through cell suicide. Scientists are also working on new treatments by modifying apoptosis to fight common diseases in the near future.

Why Do Cells Self-destruct?

Sometimes, cells need to die for the new cells to form and connect. Let’s take our brain as an example. Our bodies create millions of extra cells while our brain is developing. So, we end up with more cells than we need. When those cells do not transmit signals between each other, they commit suicide so the other cells can function properly.   


Apoptosis also happens in menstruation. During menstruation, the tissue breaks down and is naturally removed from the uterus. Without apoptosis, menstruation would not occur.

If cells are damaged or infected, they need to be removed. But, this needs to happen without harming the healthy cells. That is why we have apoptosis; cells recognize mutations or viruses, and they self-destruct so the infection, or the damage does not spread onto other cells.  

The Process Behind Apoptosis

For the cells to commit suicide, a very complicated process happens that triggers apoptosis. The cell shrinks and isolates itself from the other cells. What follows is cell breaking, where actual fragments break into parts and separate from the cell.  

If there is some kind of DNA damage in a cell, it releases signals. This maneuver triggers mitochondria (they generate power in cells), which discharges “apoptosis-inducing” proteins. The outcome is size reduction in cells because all the structures within a cell start to break down. This is a distress signal which large immune system cells (macrophages) get and then get to work to remove any traces of these cells. That is why no inflammation or cellular damage happens during apoptosis.

Apoptosis Vs. Necrosis

Cells can die in two ways; through apoptosis or necrosis. Whenever apoptosis occurs, it is a planned response to a situation. On the other hand, necrosis happens unexpectedly, when we experience enormous stress, like an injury or poison. Necrosis occurs in frostbite, usually fingers and toes, in heart attack and pneumonia. Necrosis simply destroys cells without control, and apoptosis only happens in damaged cells.

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