Mitochondrial-dependent (intrinsic) programmed cell death (PCD) is an essential homoeostatic mechanism that selects bioenergetically proficient cells suitable for tissue/organ development. However, the link between mitochondrial dysfunction, intrinsic apoptosis and developmental anomalies has not been demonstrated to date. Now we provide the evidence that non-canonical mitochondrial-dependent apoptosis explains the phenotype of microphthalmia with linear skin lesions (MLS), an X-linked developmental disorder caused by mutations in the holo-cytochrome c-type synthase (HCCS) gene. By taking advantage of a medaka model that recapitulates the MLS phenotype we demonstrate that downregulation of hccs, an essential player of the mitochondrial respiratory chain (MRC), causes increased cell death via an apoptosome-independent caspase-9 activation in brain and eyes. We also show that the unconventional activation of caspase-9 occurs in the mitochondria and is triggered by MRC impairment and overproduction of reactive oxygen species (ROS). We thus propose that HCCS plays a key role in central nervous system (CNS) development by modulating a novel non-canonical start-up of cell death and provide the first experimental evidence for a mechanistic link between mitochondrial dysfunction, intrinsic apoptosis and developmental disorders.