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Plant Physiol. 2003 May;132(1):99-105.

Cell death in the unicellular chlorophyte Dunaliella tertiolecta. A hypothesis on the evolution of apoptosis in higher plants and metazoans.

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  • 1School of Biology and Biochemistry, Queen's University of Belfast, United Kingdom.


Apoptosis is essential for normal growth and development of multicellular organisms, including metazoans and higher plants. Although cell death processes have been reported in unicellular organisms, key elements of apoptotic pathways have not been identified. Here, we show that when placed in darkness, the unicellular chlorophyte alga Dunaliella tertiolecta undergoes a form of cell death reminiscent of apoptosis in metazoans. Many morphological criteria of apoptotic cell death were met, including an increase in chromatin margination, degradation of the nucleus, and DNA fragmentation. Biochemical assays of the activities of cell death-associated proteases, caspases, measured using highly specific fluorogenic substrates, increased with time in darkness and paralleled the morphological changes. The caspase-like activities were inhibited by caspase-specific inhibitors. Antibodies raised against mammalian caspases cross-reacted with specific proteins in the alga. The pattern of expression of these immunologically reactive proteins was correlated with the onset of cell death. The occurrence of key components of apoptosis, and particularly a caspase-mediated cell death cascade in a relatively ancient linage of eukaryotic photoautotrophs, argues against current theories that cell death evolved in multicellular organisms. We hypothesize that key elements of cell death pathways were transferred to the nuclear genome of early eukaryotes through ancient viral infections in the Precambrian Ocean before the evolution of multicellular organisms and were subsequently appropriated in both metazoan and higher plant lineages.

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