Scientists Say: Apoptosis

This is when a cell carefully plans its own demise

an artists illustration of a cell dying

This is an artist’s image of a cell dying. This kind of programmed cell death is called apoptosis.

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Apoptosis (noun, “A-pop-TOH-sis, A-POP-toh-sis, Ah-puh-TOH-sis”)

This is one way that a cell can die. Some cells die because they’re killed by other cells. But in apoptosis, a cell plans its own demise. It carries out a series of careful steps to make sure that it doesn’t harm other cells as it dies. Cells in our bodies undergo apoptosis all the time. For example, as a baby is developing hands in the womb, those hands start out with webbing between the fingers. That webbing is made of cells. Those cells undergo apoptosis and die back, leaving fully formed fingers behind. As our brains mature from childhood to adulthood, we also undergo apoptosis. Our brains prune away some connections and strengthen others.

The word “apoptosis” comes from Greek. When Australian scientist John Kerr first used the word in 1972, he said that people should say the word with the second “p” almost silent. Kind of like “Ah-puh-TOH-sis.” But over time, other pronunciations have come about. Apoptosis is a word that is more likely to be read than spoken. And it’s hard to know how something is pronounced when you only see it written down. So now, you might hear scientists pronounce “apoptosis” in lots of different ways. And that’s all right. As long as you all mean “programmed cell death.”

In a sentence

A message that it’s time for apoptosis can travel across a cell in half an hour.

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Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.

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