Event: 55

Key Event Title


Cell injury/death

Short name


Cell injury/death

Biological Context


Level of Biological Organization

Cell term


Cell term
eukaryotic cell

Organ term


Key Event Components


Process Object Action
cell death increased

Key Event Overview

AOPs Including This Key Event




Taxonomic Applicability


Term Scientific Term Evidence Link
human Homo sapiens High NCBI
human and other cells in culture human and other cells in culture High NCBI
Rattus norvegicus Rattus norvegicus High NCBI
mouse Mus musculus High NCBI

Life Stages


Life stage Evidence
All life stages

Sex Applicability


Term Evidence

Key Event Description


Two types of cell death can be distinguished by morphological features, although it is likely that these are two ends of a spectrum with possible intermediate forms. Apoptosis involves shrinkage, nuclear disassembly, and fragmentation of the cell into discrete bodies with intact plasma membranes. These are rapidly phagocytosed by neighbouring cells. An important feature of apoptosis is the requirement for adenosine triphosphate (ATP) to initiate the execution phase. In contrast, necrotic cell death is characterized by cell swelling and lysis. This is usually a consequence of profound loss of mitochondrial function and resultant ATP depletion, leading to loss of ion homeostasis, including volume regulation, and increased intracellular Ca2+. The latter activates a number of nonspecific hydrolases (i.e., proteases, nucleases, and phospholipases) as well as calcium dependent kinases. Activation of calpain I, the Ca2+-dependent cysteine protease cleaves the death-promoting Bcl-2 family members Bid and Bax which translocate to mitochondrial membranes, resulting in release of truncated apoptosis-inducing factor (tAIF), cytochrome c and endonuclease in the case of Bid and cytocrome c in the case of Bax. tAIF translocates to cell nuclei, and together with cyclophilin A and phosphorylated histone H2AX (γH2AX) is responsible for DNA cleavage, a feature of programmed necrosis. Activated calpain I has also been shown to cleave the plasma membrane Na+–Ca2+ exchanger, which leads to build-up of intracellular Ca2+, which is the source of additional increased intracellular Ca2+. Cytochrome c in cellular apoptosis is a component of the apoptosome.

DNA damage activates nuclear poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase-1(PARP-1), a DNA repair enzyme. PARP-1 forms poly(ADP-ribose) polymers, to repair DNA, but when DNA damage is extensive, PAR accumulates, exits cell nuclei and travels to mitochondrial membranes, where it, like calpain I, is involved in AIF release from mitochondria. A fundamental distinction between necrosis and apoptosis is the loss of plasma membrane integrity; this is integral to the former but not the latter. As a consequence, lytic release of cellular constituents promotes a local inflammatory reaction, whereas the rapid removal of apoptotic bodies minimizes such a reaction. The distinction between the two modes of death is easily accomplished in vitro but not in vivo. Thus, although claims that certain drugs induce apoptosis have been made, these are relatively unconvincing. DNA fragmentation can occur in necrosis, leading to positive TUNEL staining. Conversely, when apoptosis is massive, it can exceed the capacity for rapid phagocytosis, resulting in the eventual appearance of secondary necrosis.

Two alternative pathways - either extrinsic (receptor-mediated) or intrinsic (mitochondria-mediated) - lead to apoptotic cell death. The initiation of cell death begins either at the plasma membrane with the binding of TNF or FasL to their cognate receptors or within the cell. The latter is due to the occurrence of intracellular stress in the form of biochemical events such as oxidative stress, redox changes, covalent binding, lipid peroxidation, and consequent functional effects on mitochondria, endoplasmic reticulum, microtubules, cytoskeleton, or DNA. The intrinsic mitochondrial pathway involves the initiator, caspase-9, which, when activated, forms an “apoptosome” in the cytosol, together with cytochrome c, which translocates from mitochondria, Apaf-1 and dATP. The apoptosome activates caspase-3, the central effector caspase, which in turn activates downstream factors that are responsible for the apoptotic death of a cell (Fujikawa, 2015). Intracellular stress either directly affects mitochondria or can lead to effects on other organelles, which then send signals to the mitochondria to recruit participation in the death process (Fujikawa, 2015; Malhi et al., 2010). Constitutively expressed nitric oxide synthase (nNOS) is a Ca2+-dependent cytosolic enzyme that forms nitric oxide (NO) from L-arginine, and NO reacts with the free radical such as superoxide (O2−) to form the very toxic free radical peroxynitrite (ONOO−). Free radicals such as ONOO−, O2 − and hydroxyl radical (OH−) damage cellular membranes and intracellular proteins, enzymes and DNA (Fujikawa, 2015; Malhi et al., 2010; Kaplowitz, 2002; Kroemer et al., 2009).  

How It Is Measured or Detected



LDH is a soluble cytoplasmic enzyme that is present in almost all cells and is released into extracellular space when the plasma membrane is damaged. To detect the leakage of LDH into cell culture medium, a tetrazolium salt is used in this assay. In the first step, LDH produces reduced nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NADH) when it catalyzes the oxidation of lactate to pyruvate. In the second step, a tetrazolium salt is converted to a colored formazan product using newly synthesized NADH in the presence of an electron acceptor. The amount of formazan product can be colorimetrically quantified by standard spectroscopy. Because of the linearity of the assay, it can be used to enumerate the percentage of necrotic cells in a sample (Chan et al., 2013). 

The MTT assay is a colorimetric assay for assessing cell viability. NAD(P)H-dependent cellular oxidoreductase enzymes may reflect the number of viable cells present. These enzymes are capable of reducing the tetrazolium dye MTT 3-(4,5-dimethylthiazol-2-yl)-2,5-diphenyltetrazolium bromide to its insoluble formazan, which has a purple color. Other closely related tetrazolium dyes including XTT, MTS and the WSTs. Tetrazolium dye assays can also be used to measure cytotoxicity (loss of viable cells) or cytostatic activity (shift from proliferation to quiescence) of potential medicinal agents and toxic materials. MTT assays are usually done in the dark since the MTT reagent is sensitive to light (Berridgeet al.,2005).

Propidium iodide (PI) is an intercalating agent and a fluorescent molecule used to stain necrotic cells. It is cell membrane impermeant so it stains only those cells where the cell membrane is destroyed. When PI is bound to nucleic acids, the fluorescence excitation maximum is 535 nm and the emission maximum is 617 nm (Moore et al.,1998)

Alamar Blue (resazurin) fluorescent dye. The oxidized blue non fluorescent Alamar blue is reduced to a pink fluorescent dye in the medium by cell activity (O'Brien et al., 2000) (12).

Neutral red uptake, which is based on the ability of viable cells to incorporate and bind the supravital dye neutral red in lysosomes (Repetto et al., 2008)(13).

ATP assay: Quantification of ATP, signaling the presence of metabolically active cells (CellTiter-Glo; Promega).


TUNEL is a common method for detecting DNA fragmentation that results from apoptotic signalling cascades. The assay relies on the presence of nicks in the DNA which can be identified by terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase or TdT, an enzyme that will catalyze the addition of dUTPs that are secondarily labeled with a marker. It may also label cells that have suffered severe DNA damage.

Caspase activity assays measured by fluorescence. During apoptosis, mainly caspase-3 and -7 cleave PARP to yield an 85 kDa and a 25 kDa fragment. PARP cleavage is considered to be one of the classical characteristics of apoptosis. Antibodies to the 85 kDa fragment of cleaved PARP or to caspase-3 both serve as markers for apoptotic cells that can be monitored using immunofluorescence (Li, Peng et al., 2004).

Hoechst 33342 staining: Hoechst dyes are cell-permeable and bind to DNA in live or fixed cells. Therefore, these stains are often called supravital, which means that cells survive a treatment with these compounds. The stained, condensed or fragmented DNA is a marker of apoptosis (Loo, 2002; Kubbies and Rabinovitch, 1983). 

Acridine Orange/Ethidium Bromide staining is used to visualize nuclear changes and apoptotic body formation that are characteristic of apoptosis. Cells are viewed under a fluorescence microscope and counted to quantify apoptosis.

Domain of Applicability


Cell death is an universal event occurring in cells of any species (Fink and Cookson,2005).



  • Fujikawa, D.G. (2015), The role of excitotoxic programmed necrosis in acute brain injury, Comput Struct Biotechnol J, vol. 13, pp. 212-221.
  • Malhi, H. et al. (2010), Hepatocyte death: a clear and present danger, Physiol Rev, vol. 90, no. 3, pp. 1165-1194.
  • Kaplowitz, N. (2002), Biochemical and Cellular Mechanisms of Toxic Liver Injury, Semin Liver Dis, vol. 22, no. 2, http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/433631 (accessed on 20 January 2016).
  • Kroemer, G. et al., (2009), Classification of cell death: recommendations of the Nomenclature Committee on Cell Death, Cell Death Differ, vol. 16, no. 1, pp. 3-11.
  • Chan, F.K., K. Moriwaki and M.J. De Rosa (2013), Detection of necrosis by release of lactate dehydrogenase (LDH) activity, Methods Mol Biol, vol. 979, pp. 65–70.
  • Berridge, M.V., P.M. Herst and A.S. Tan (2005), Tetrazolium dyes as tools in cell biology: new insights into their cellular reduction. Biotechnology Annual Review, vol. 11, pp 127-152.
  • Moore, A, et al.(1998), Simultaneous measurement of cell cycle and apoptotic cell death,Methods Cell Biol, vol. 57, pp. 265–278.
  • Li, Peng et al. (2004), Mitochondrial activation of apoptosis, Cell, vol. 116, no. 2 Suppl,pp. S57-59, 2 p following S59.
  • Loo, D.T. (2002), TUNEL Assay an overview of techniques, Methods in Molecular Biology, vol. 203: In Situ Detection of DNA Damage, chapter 2, Didenko VV (ed.), Humana Press Inc.
  • Kubbies, M. and P.S. Rabinovitch (1983), Flow cytometric analysis of factors which influence the BrdUrd-Hoechst quenching effect in cultivated human fibroblasts and lymphocytes, Cytometry, vol. 3, no. 4, pp. 276–281.
  • Fink, S.L. and B.T. Cookson (2005), Apoptosis, pyroptosis, and necrosis: mechanistic description of dead and dying eukaryotic cells, Infect Immun, vol. 73, no. 4, pp.1907-1916.
  • O'Brien J, Wilson I, Orton T, Pognan F. 2000. Investigation of the Alamar Blue (resazurin) fluorescent dye for the assessment of mammalian cell cytotoxicity. European journal of biochemistry / FEBS 267(17): 5421-5426.
  • Repetto G, del Peso A, Zurita JL. 2008. Neutral red uptake assay for the estimation of cell viability/cytotoxicity. Nature protocols 3(7): 1125-1131.