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Phenoptosis (pheno – showing or demonstrating, ptosis – programmed death, "falling off"), designated by V.P. Skulachev in 1999, signifies the phenomenon of programmed death of an organism, i.e. that an organism's genes include features that under certain circumstances will cause the organism to rapidly degenerate and die off. Recently this has been referred to as "fast phenoptosis" as aging is being explored as "slow phenoptosis". Phenoptosis is a common feature of living species, whose ramifications for humans is still being explored.
Inside of our bodies, worn-out, ineffective cells are dismantled and recycled for the greater good of the whole organism. This is a process called apoptosis. It is believed that phenoptosis is an evolutionary mechanism that culls out the damaged, aged, infectious, or those in direct competition with their own offspring for the good of the species. The elimination of parts detrimental to the organism or individuals detrimental to the species has been deemed "The samurai law of biology" – it is better to die than to be wrong. Stress-induced, acute, or fast phenoptosis is the rapid deterioration of an organism induced by a life event such as breeding. Elimination of the parent provides space for fitter offspring. As a species this has been advantageous particularly to species that die immediately after spawning. Age-induced, soft, or slow phenoptosis is the slow deterioration and death of an organism due to accumulated stresses over long periods of time. In short, it has been proposed that aging, heart disease, cancer, and other age related ailments are means of phenoptosis. "Death caused by aging clears the population of ancestors and frees space for progeny carrying new useful traits." It has also been proposed that age provides a selective advantage to brains over brawn. An example made by V. P. Skulachev provides that of two hares, one faster and one smarter, the faster hare may have a selective advantage in youth but as aging occurs and muscles deteriorate it is the smarter hare that now has the selective advantage.
Examples in nature
Amoeba Dictyostelium – Under stress amoeba form multicellular fruiting bodies. The better nourished cells differentiate into spores. The less healthy cells differentiate into the stalks of the fruiting body. After maturation of the spores, the stalk cells undergo phenoptosis.
Nematode Caenorhabditis elegans – Under normal conditions Caenorhabditis elegans display a normal aging life cycle. However, if there is increased stress after breeding they undergo phenoptosis, like in yeast, induced by the mitochondria.
Septic shock – Severe infection by pathogens often results in death by sepsis. Sepsis, however, is not a result of toxins activated by the pathogen, rather it is directed by the organism itself. Similar to phenoptosis of E. coli, this has been suggested to be a means to separate dangerously infected individuals from healthy ones.
- "If you catch salmon right after they spawn... you find they have huge adrenal glands, peptic ulcers, and kidney lesions, their immune systems have collapsed... [and they] have stupendously high glucocorticoid concentrations in their bloodstreams. When salmon spawn, regulation of their glucocortocoid secretion breaks down... But is the glucocorticoid excess really responsible for their death? Yup. Take a salmon right after spawning, remove its adrenals, and it will live for a year afterward.
- "The bizarre thing is that this sequence... not only occurs in five species of salmon, but also among a dozen species of Australian marsupial mice... Pacific salmon and marsupial mice are not close relatives. At least twice in evolutionary history, completely independently, two very different sets of species have come up with the identical trick: if you want to degenerate very fast, secrete a ton of glucocorticoids."
- Skulachev, V.P. (November 1997). "Organism's Aging is a Special Biological Function Rather than a Result of Breakdown of a Complex Biological System: Biochemical Support of Weismann's Hypothesis". Biokhimiya. 62 (12): 1191–1195. PMID 9467841.
- Weismann, A (1889). Essays upon Heredity and Kindred Bio_. Oxford: Clarendon Press. p. 23. ISBN 978-1172574988.
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