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Cell Death Differ. 2008 Oct;15(10):1533-41. doi: 10.1038/cdd.2008.41.

The extrinsic cell death pathway and the élan mortel.

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Department of Biological Chemistry, The Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot 76100, Israel.


Early in the exploration of the chemical nature of life, it was widely believed that the molecules of living organisms, by their very nature, differ from those of inorganic material molecules and possess a vital force ('élan vital'). Similarly, early scientific thinking on the subject of cell death and its induction by cytotoxic cells of the immune system was pervaded by a sense that the molecules mediating these functions possess intrinsic deadly activity and are dedicated exclusively to death-related tasks. This impression was also reflected in the initial notions of the mode of action of intracellular proteins that signal for death. It is now gradually becoming clear, however, that proteins participating in death induction also have functions unrelated to death. Nevertheless, as exemplified by studies of the function of caspase-8 (an enzyme that signals both for activation of the extrinsic cell-death pathway and for non-death-related effects), analysis of the mechanistic basis for such heterogeneity might allow identification of distinct structural determinants in the proteins participating in death induction that do bear death specificity.

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