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Am Nat. 2011 Feb;177(2):224-32. doi: 10.1086/657686.

How an organism dies affects the fitness of its neighbors.

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  • 1Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona 85721, USA.


Programmed cell death (PCD), a genetically regulated cell suicide program, is ubiquitous in the living world. In contrast to multicellular organisms, in which cells cooperate for the good of the organism, in unicells the cell is the organism and PCD presents a fundamental evolutionary problem. Why should an organism actively kill itself as opposed to dying in a nonprogrammed way? Proposed arguments vary from PCD in unicells being maladaptive to the assumption that it is an extreme form of altruism. To test whether PCD could be beneficial to nearby cells, we induced programmed and nonprogrammed death in the unicellular green alga Chlamydomonas reinhardtii. Cellular contents liberated during non-PCD are detrimental to others, while the contents released during PCD are beneficial. The number of cells in growing cultures was used to measure fitness. Thermostability studies revealed that the beneficial effect of the PCD supernatant most likely involves simple heat-stable biomolecules. Non-PCD supernatant contains heat-sensitive molecules like cellular proteases and chlorophyll. These data indicate that the mode of death affects the origin and maintenance of PCD. The way in which an organism dies can have beneficial or deleterious effects on the fitness of its neighbors.

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