2001 Warkany lecture: To die or not to die, the role of apoptosis in normal and abnormal mammalian development


  • Philip E. Mirkes

    Corresponding author
    1. Birth Defects Research Laboratory, Division of Genetics and Development, Department of Pediatrics, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington 98195
    • Department of Pediatrics, Box 356320, University of Washington, 1959 NE Pacific Street, Seattle, WA 98195
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Cell death is a common and reproducible feature of the development of many mammalian tissues/organs. Two well-known examples of programmed cell death (PCD) are the cell deaths associated with fusion of the neural folds and removal of interdigital mesenchymal cells during digit formation. Like normal development, abnormal development is also associated with increased cell death in tissues/organs that develop abnormally after exposure to a wide variety of teratogens. At least in some instances, teratogens induce cell death in areas of normal PCD, suggesting that there is a link between programmed and teratogen-induced cell death. Although researchers recognized early on that cell death is an integral part of both normal and abnormal development, little was known about the mechanisms of cell death. In 1972, Kerr et al. ('72) showed conclusively that cell deaths, induced in a variety of contexts, followed a reproducible pattern, which they termed apoptosis. The next breakthrough came in the 1980s when Horvitz and his colleagues identified specific cell death genes (ced) that controlled PCD in the roundworm, Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans). Identification of ced genes in the roundworm quickly led to the isolation of their mammalian homologues. Subsequent research in the 1990s led to the identification of a cadre of proteins controlling cell death in mammals, i.e., receptors/ligands, caspases, cytochrome c, Apaf-1, Bcl-2 family proteins, and IAPs. Two major pathways of apoptosis have now been elucidated, the receptor-mediated and the mitochondrial apoptotic pathways. The latter pathway, induced by a wide variety of toxic agents, is activated by the release of cytochrome c from mitochondria. Cytochrome c then facilitates the activation of a caspase cascade involving caspase-9 and -3. Activation of these caspases results in the cleavage of a variety of cellular proteins leading to the orderly demise of the cell. Work from my laboratory in the last 5 years has shown that teratogens, such as hyperthermia, 4-hydroperoxycyclophosphamide, and staurosporine, induce cell death in day 9 mouse embryos by activating the mitochondrial apoptotic pathway, i.e., mitochondrial release of cytochrome c, activation of caspase-9 and -3, inactivation of poly (ADP-ribose) polymerase (PARP), and systematic degradation of DNA. Our work, as well as the work of others, has also shown that different tissues within the early post implantation mammalian embryo are differentially sensitive to the cell death inducing potential of teratogens, from exquisite sensitivity of cells in the developing central nervous system to complete resistance of cells in the developing heart. More importantly, we have shown that the resistance of heart cells is directly related to the failure to activate the mitochondrial apoptotic pathway in these cells. Thus, whether a cell dies in response to a teratogen and therefore contributes to the pathogenesis culminating in birth defects, depends, at least in part, by the cell's ability to regulate the mitochondrial apoptotic pathway. Future research aimed at understanding this regulation should provide insight not only into the mechanism of teratogen-induced cell death but also the role of cell death in the genesis of birth defects. Teratology 65:228–239, 2002. © 2002 Wiley-Liss, Inc.