History of Apoptosis Research


Apoptosis‐like cell death was first observed in developing tissues using histological methods in the mid‐nineteenth century. Having been frequently rejected as experimental artefacts, such biologically active, well‐regulated cell death phenomena were reconfirmed in various research contexts during the first half of the twentieth century. In 1972, three pathologists observed cell death in pathological tissues and coined the term ‘apoptosis’ to distinguish the concept of physiological cell death from the concept of passive cell death, necrosis. In the 1980s and 1990s, modern molecular biotechnology transformed apoptosis research from a subject for mostly morphological investigation to a multivalent, interdisciplinary field important to developmental biology, biogerontology and cancer research.

Key Concepts:

  • Apoptosis is biologically active, well‐regulated physiological cell death mechanism that is involved in development, tumour suppression, tissue homoeostasis and degenerative diseases.

  • Apoptosis was discovered and defined initially through its unique morphology.

  • The discovery of apoptosis in development challenged assumptions in embryology in the early twentieth century.

  • Molecular methods transformed apoptosis research into an important biological and biomedical field.

Keywords: apoptosis; programmed cell death; embryology; cell differentiation; Caenorhabditis elegans; cancer research; caspase; ced genes; Bcl‐2; p53

Figure 1.

A diagram describing the morphology of apoptosis. Adapted from Kerr et al. , with permission from Nature Publishing Group (hyperlinked to http://www.nature.com/bjc/index.html).

Figure 2.

The ‘DNA ladder’ produced with electrophoresis from DNAs of apoptotic cells. Adapted from Wyllie , with permission from Nature Publishing Group (hyperlinked to http://www.nature.com/).



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Further Reading

Landecker H (2003) On beginning and ending with apoptosis: cell death and biomedicine. In: Franklin S and Lock M (eds) Remaking Life and Death: Toward an Anthropology of the Biosciences, pp. 23–59. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press.

Lockshin RA and Zakeri Z (2001) Programmed cell death and apoptosis: origins of the theory. Nature Reviews. Molecular Cell Biology 2(7): 545–550.

Vaux DL (2002) Apoptosis timeline. Cell Death and Differentiation 9(4): 349–354.

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Jiang, Lijing(Jun 2012) History of Apoptosis Research. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0023954]