Background Although no potential homologues of multicellular apoptotic genes (e.g. Bax, Bak, Bcl-2, caspases and p53) have been identified in a unicellular eukaryote, previous reports contain several implications of the apoptotic behaviour of yeasts (i.e. Saccharomyces cerevisiae and Schizosaccharomyces pombe). Therefore, whether or not yeast undergoes apoptosis has been a topic of some debate. hCCG1, which is the largest subunit of TFIID and a histone acetyltransferase, appears to be involved in the regulation of apoptosis. The factor hCIA interacts with hCCG1 and functions as a histone chaperone in mammalian cells; its homologue in yeast is Asf1p/Cia1p. Therefore, we anticipated that a yeast mutant in Asf1p/Cia1p would be a valuable tool for studying apoptosis in yeast.

Results We established a strain of S. cerevisiae lacking the histone chaperone ASF1/CIA1. This disruptant, asf1/cia1, arrested preferentially at the G2/M-phase and died. We systematically analysed the phenotype associated with the death of this mutant yeast and identified many changes, such as fragmentation of the nuclei, condensation and fragmentation of chromatin, reduction of the mitochondrial membrane-potential, dysfunction of the mitochondrial proton pump, and a discernible release of cytochrome c to cytoplasm that resembles those in apoptotic multicellular organisms. Other changes potentially associated with the death in our mutant included a reduction in the vacuolar membrane potential, dysfunction of the vacuolar proton pump, reduction of endocytosis, and the presence of many autophagic bodies. However, these mutant yeast cells also showed cellular enlargement, which is characteristic of necrosis.

Conclusions Cell death in S. cerevisiae occurs with a phenotype that largely resembles apoptosis in multicellular organisms, but that has some features of necrosis. Therefore, we indicate that yeast undergoes a ‘prototypal active cell death’ that retains some characteristics of passive cell death (necrosis). In addition, we think that active cell death is ubiquitously the essential attribute of life. Although such an active cell death system in yeast remains open to confirmation, we speculate that deletion of the histone chaperone Asf1p/Cia1p inhibits the normal assembly/disassembly of nucleosomes in yeast and thereby initiates the active cell death system.