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The term apoptosis is proposed for a hitherto little recognized mechanism of controlled cell deletion, which appears to play a complementary but opposite role to mitosis in the regulation of animal cell populations. Its morphological features suggest that it is an active, inherently programmed phenomenon, and it has been shown that it can be initiated or inhibited by a variety of environmental stimuli, both physiological and pathological.
The structural changes take place in two discrete stages. The first comprises nuclear and cytoplasmic condensation and breaking up of the cell into a number of membrane-bound, ultrastructurally well-preserved fragments. In the second stage these apoptotic bodies are shed from epithelial-lined surfaces or are taken up by other cells, where they undergo a series of changes resembling in vitro autolysis within phagosomes, and are rapidly degraded by lysosomal enzymes derived from the ingesting cells.
Apoptosis seems to be involved in cell turnover in many healthy adult tissues and is responsible for focal elimination of cells during normal embryonic development. It occurs spontaneously in untreated malignant neoplasms, and participates in at least some types of therapeutically induced tumour regression. It is implicated in both physiological involution and atrophy of various tissues and organs. It can also be triggered by noxious agents, both in the embryo and adult animal.