Programmed Cell Death and Complexity in Microbial Systems

Pierre M. Durand, Stuart Sym, Richard E. Michod

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

56 Scopus citations


Programmed cell death (PCD) is central to organism development and for a long time was considered a hallmark of multicellularity. Its discovery, therefore, in unicellular organisms presents compelling questions. Why did PCD evolve? What is its ecological effect on communities? To answer these questions, one is compelled to consider the impacts of PCD beyond the cell, for death obviously lowers the fitness of the cell. Here, we examine the ecological effects of PCD in different microbial scenarios and conclude that PCD can increase biological complexity. In mixed microbial communities, the mode of death affects the microenvironment, impacting the interactions between taxa. Where the population comprises groups of relatives, death has a more explicit effect. Death by lysis or other means can be harmful, while PCD can evolve by providing advantages to relatives. The synchronization of death between individuals suggests a group level property is being maintained and the mode of death also appears to have had an impact during the origin of multicellularity. PCD can result in the export of fitness from the cell to the group level via re-usable resources and PCD may also provide a mechanism for how groups beget new groups comprising kin. Furthermore, PCD is a means for solving a central problem of group living — the toxic effects of death — by making resources in dying cells beneficial to others. What emerges from the data reviewed here is that while PCD carries an obvious cost to the cell, it can be a driver of complexity in microbial communities.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)R587-R593
JournalCurrent Biology
Issue number13
StatePublished - Jul 11 2016

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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