Autophagy is a lysosome-mediated self-degradation process of eukaryotic cells that, depending on the cellular milieu, can either promote survival or act as an alternative mechanism of programmed cell death (PCD) in terminally differentiated cells. Despite the important developmental and medical implications of autophagy and the main form of PCD, apoptosis, orchestration of their regulation remains poorly understood. Here, we show in the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, that various genetic and pharmacological interventions causing embryonic lethality trigger a massive cell death response that has both autophagic and apoptotic features. The two degradation processes are also redundantly required for normal development and viability in this organism. Furthermore, the CES-2-like basic region leucine-zipper (bZip) transcription factor ATF-2, an upstream modulator of the core apoptotic cell death pathway, is able to directly regulate the expression of at least two key autophagy-related genes, bec-1/ATG6 and lgg-1/ATG8. Thus, the two cell death mechanisms share a common method of transcriptional regulation. Together, these results imply that under certain physiological and pathological conditions, autophagy and apoptosis are co-regulated to ensure the proper morphogenesis and survival of the developing organism. The identification of apoptosis and autophagy as compensatory cellular pathways in C. elegans might help us to understand how dysregulated PCD in humans can lead to diverse pathologies, including cancer, neurodegeneration and diabetes.
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