Indexed on: 19 Mar '13Published on: 19 Mar '13Published in: PLoS genetics
Caspases are cysteine proteases that can drive apoptosis in metazoans and have critical functions in the elimination of cells during development, the maintenance of tissue homeostasis, and responses to cellular damage. Although a growing body of research suggests that programmed cell death can occur in the absence of caspases, mammalian studies of caspase-independent apoptosis are confounded by the existence of at least seven caspase homologs that can function redundantly to promote cell death. Caspase-independent programmed cell death is also thought to occur in the invertebrate nematode Caenorhabditis elegans. The C. elegans genome contains four caspase genes (ced-3, csp-1, csp-2, and csp-3), of which only ced-3 has been demonstrated to promote apoptosis. Here, we show that CSP-1 is a pro-apoptotic caspase that promotes programmed cell death in a subset of cells fated to die during C. elegans embryogenesis. csp-1 is expressed robustly in late pachytene nuclei of the germline and is required maternally for its role in embryonic programmed cell deaths. Unlike CED-3, CSP-1 is not regulated by the APAF-1 homolog CED-4 or the BCL-2 homolog CED-9, revealing that csp-1 functions independently of the canonical genetic pathway for apoptosis. Previously we demonstrated that embryos lacking all four caspases can eliminate cells through an extrusion mechanism and that these cells are apoptotic. Extruded cells differ from cells that normally undergo programmed cell death not only by being extruded but also by not being engulfed by neighboring cells. In this study, we identify in csp-3; csp-1; csp-2 ced-3 quadruple mutants apoptotic cell corpses that fully resemble wild-type cell corpses: these caspase-deficient cell corpses are morphologically apoptotic, are not extruded, and are internalized by engulfing cells. We conclude that both caspase-dependent and caspase-independent pathways promote apoptotic programmed cell death and the phagocytosis of cell corpses in parallel to the canonical apoptosis pathway involving CED-3 activation.