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J Exp Bot. 2004 Oct;55(406):2147-53. Epub 2004 Sep 10.

Senescence and programmed cell death: substance or semantics?

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  • 1Wageningen University and Research Centre, PO Box 17, 6700 AA Wageningen, The Netherlands.


The terms senescence and programmed cell death (PCD) have led to some confusion. Senescence as visibly observed in, for example, leaf yellowing and petal wilting, has often been taken to be synonymous with the programmed death of the constituent cells. PCD also obviously refers to cells, which show a programme leading to their death. Some scientists noted that leaf yellowing, if it has not gone too far, can be reversed. They suggested calling leaf yellowing, before the point of no return, 'senescence' and the process after it 'PCD'. However, this runs into several problems. It is counter to the historical definitions of senescence, both in animal and plant science, which stipulate that senescence is programmed and directly ends in death. It would also mean that only leaves and shoots show senescence, whereas several other plant parts, where reversal has not (yet) been shown, have no senescence, but only PCD. This conflicts with ordinary usage (as in root and flower senescence). Moreover, a programme can be reversible and therefore it is not counter to logic to regard the cell death programme as potentially reversible. In green leaf cells a decision to die, in a programmed way, has been taken, in principle, before the cells start to remobilize their contents (that is, before visible yellowing) and only rarely is this decision reversed. According to the arguments developed here there are no good reasons to separate a senescence phase and a subsequent PCD phase. Rather, it is asserted, senescence in cells is the same as PCD and the two are fully synchronous.

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