The meaning of death: evolution and ecology of apoptosis in protozoan parasites

Sarah E. Reece*, Laura C. Pollitt, Nick Colegrave, Andy Gardner

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

50 Citations (Scopus)
1 Downloads (Pure)


The discovery that an apoptosis-like, programmed cell death (PCD) occurs in a broad range of protozoan parasites offers novel therapeutic tools to treat some of the most serious infectious diseases of humans, companion animals, wildlife, and livestock. Whilst apoptosis is an essential part of normal development, maintenance, and defence in multicellular organisms, its occurrence in unicellular parasites appears counter-intuitive and has proved highly controversial: according to the Darwinian notion of "survival of the fittest", parasites are expected to evolve strategies to maximise their proliferation, not death. The prevailing, and untested, opinion in the literature is that parasites employ apoptosis to "altruistically" self-regulate the intensity of infection in the host/vector. However, evolutionary theory tells us that at most, this can only be part of the explanation, and other non-mutually exclusive hypotheses must also be tested. Here, we explain the evolutionary concepts that can explain apoptosis in unicellular parasites, highlight the key questions, and outline the approaches required to resolve the controversy over whether parasites "commit suicide". We highlight the need for integration of proximate and functional approaches into an evolutionary framework to understand apoptosis in unicellular parasites. Understanding how, when, and why parasites employ apoptosis is central to targeting this process with interventions that are sustainable in the face of parasite evolution.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere1002320
Number of pages9
JournalPLoS Pathogens
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2011


  • Programmed cell-death
  • Genetic kin recognition
  • Plasmodium-Falciparum
  • Social evolution
  • Reproductive restraint
  • Unicellular organisms
  • Altruistic behaviour


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