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Caspases participate in the molecular control of apoptosis in several guises; as triggers of the death machinery, as regulatory elements within it, and ultimately as a subset of the effector elements of the machinery itself. The mammalian caspase family is steadily growing and currently contains 14 members. At present, it is unclear whether all of these proteases participate in apoptosis. Thus, current research in this area is focused upon establishing the repertoire and order of caspase activation events that occur during the signalling and demolition phases of cell death. Evidence is accumulating to suggest that proximal caspase activation events are typically initiated by molecules that promote caspase aggregation. As expected, distal caspase activation events are likely to be controlled by caspases activated earlier in the cascade. However, recent data has cast doubt upon the functional demarcation of caspases into signalling (upstream) and effector (downstream) roles based upon their prodomain lengths. In particular, caspase-3 may perform an important role in propagating the caspase cascade, in addition to its role as an effector caspase within the death programme. Here, we discuss the apoptosis-associated caspase cascade and the hierarchy of caspase activation events within it.

Original publication




Journal article


Cell death and differentiation

Publication Date





1067 - 1074


Division of Molecular & Cell Biology, Smurfit Institute of Genetics, Trinity College, Dublin 2, Ireland.


Mitochondria, Animals, Caspases, Apoptosis, Enzyme Activation, Substrate Specificity, Forecasting