Apoptosis (sometimes called programmed cell death) is a normal, natural process that plays a vital role in keeping cells healthy.

Apoptosis in action.


Ancient wisdom states there is a time to be born and a time to die. That’s just as true for our cells as it is for ourselves.

While focus is often placed on the first half of this truth — on “birth” — it’s becoming clear that the natural death of cells may be just as important. Every day, in every normal adult human, billions of cells literally commit suicide to make room for other new, healthy cells. This happens in our dogs as well.

This normal, natural, and critical body process is called “apoptosis.” Apoptosis is encoded in each cell’s DNA.

When a cell triggers its own apoptosis genes, those genes break the cell down completely, so the body can safely recycle or eliminate the remaining particles. It doesn’t hurt, because there are no side effects and very little (if any) inflammation with apoptosis. Apoptosis is as natural as breathing, and as necessary to health. After all, we can’t make room for healthy new cells without apoptosis.

Healthy, normal apoptosis genes don’t turn on randomly. There’s always a reason. Sometimes the cells committing suicide have reached the end of their natural lifespan and are just dying a natural death. Other times, cells trigger their “suicide genes” after they suffer derangement or irreparable damage.

The individual images on this page were extracted from a time-lapse microscopy video showing apoptosis of DU145 prostate cancer cells. To induce apoptosis the cells were treated with etoposide. The 61 hour time-lapse was created using the HoloMonitor M3 from Phase Holographic Imaging AB. The author Egelberg posted this image on the Wikipedia entry for Apoptosis and this is used with a Creative Commons License.

The Three Steps of Apoptosis

Watch this short video to learn more about the three steps of apoptosis: Initiation, Execution, and Phagocytosis

How to Pronounce Apoptosis


Apoptosis is a Greek word that translates to "falling off" or "falling away." It’s often used to describe the natural world: autumn leaves as they tumble from the branch; flower petals wilting and drifting to earth. In Greek, the second “p” is silent, and so the traditional and most correct pronunciation is “ay-paw-TOE-sis.” More recently, some people have pronounced it as an English word: "ay-POP-toe-sis."

Whichever way you pronounce it, apoptosis is the perfect word to describe a genetically-programmed death that occurs naturally in cells at the end of life, or in cells which have sustained damage or become deranged. This process of “controlled cell deletion” was known for centuries, but not thoroughly explored until 1972, when a landmark paper was published in a British medical journal. Looking for a word that helped distinguish this natural, gentle cell suicide from other forms of cell death (for example, trauma), the paper’s authors consulted with a Greek language professor, who proposed "apoptosis."

Even though we need electron microscopes to see apoptosis happening on a cellular level, we hope that someday the word is as widely used and understood as “DNA” or “gravity” is now.

Ancient Concept, Modern Understanding

Nobel Prize-Winning Insights into the Natural Life and Death of Cells

Apoptosis is mentioned in textbooks, and many of us encountered the word in high school biology class, if only for five minutes. It was first described well over a century ago. But it took until 2002 for us to understand its importance. That’s when the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, given to those who have made the most important discovery in the field, was awarded to three researchers who study apoptosis.

The winners – Sydney Brenner, H. Robert Horvitz, and John E. Sulston – were jointly awarded “for their discoveries concerning genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death.”

Apoptosis genes are critical. They are what makes normal life, development, and death possible, for every cell in every species Brenner, Horvitz and Sulston studied. Normal apoptosis genes monitor each cell for balance and health. They only turn “on” apoptosis – natural cell suicide – if it’s needed. Otherwise, they stay “off.” They are sort of like the automatic braking system (ABS) in your car. The ABS doesn’t kick in unless it is needed. Similarly, apoptosis genes only turn “on” when they’re needed. Otherwise, in a healthy cell, they simply monitor in the background.

As Nobel Laureates Drs. Brenner, Horvitz, and Sulston made clear: the body uses apoptosis to maintain balance from womb to tomb. When apoptosis is out of balance, so is health.

These new insights, highlighted by 2002’s Nobel Prize, inspired scientists all over the planet to look more closely at apoptosis and how it affects health. In the years since, apoptosis has become one of the hottest, most cutting-edge areas of science. We all owe Drs. Brenner, Horvitz, and Sulston a debt of gratitude.

Sydney Brenner, H. Robert Horvitz, and John E. Sulston

Key Discoveries

  • To maintain tissue equilibrium, for every newly formed cell, another must undergo programmed cell death
  • Programmed cell death, or apoptosis, holds equal importance for overall health alongside cell birth through mitosis
  • Specialized genes orchestrate both organ development and the process of apoptosis, effectively sculpting organs by regulating the activation and deactivation of cell death
  • Apoptosis genes are pervasive across a spectrum of species, spanning from simple organisms like C. elegans to complex beings like humans and, of course, our canine companions

A Natural End To Life, Hiding in Plain Sight

At Functional Nutriments, we constantly return to the natural world for inspiration and understanding. That’s because while science is often conducted in sterile labs, the most illuminating insights come from nature itself.

This has always been true. Sir Isaac Newton came up with his theory of gravity by watching apples falling from trees. At the time, his theory was radical and flew in the face of accepted knowledge. Today, it’s basic science. Think of apoptosis the next time you witness a natural end to life, whether it’s in a petal wilting, a leaf turning color, or – like Newton saw – an apple falling.

Apoptosis is as natural as breathing, and as necessary to health.