Apoptosis, the seemingly counter-intuitive act of physiological cell suicide, is accomplished by an evolutionarily conserved death program that is centered on the activation of a group of intracellular cysteine proteases known as caspases. It is now clear that both extra- and intra-cellular stimuli induce apoptosis by triggering the activation of these otherwise latent proteases in a process that culminates in caspase-mediated disintegration of cellular contents and their subsequent absorption by neighboring cells. While many elegant in vitro studies have demonstrated the requirement of caspase activities for the execution of most, if not all, apoptosis, the precise contribution of individual caspases in vivo and how they functionally relate to each other remain poorly elucidated. Fortunately, the generation of various caspase deficient mice through gene targeting has provided a unique window of opportunity to definitely examine the physiological function of these caspases in vivo. As the list of caspase knockouts grows, we considered it was time to review what we have been learned, from these studies about the exact role of individual caspases in mediating apoptotic events. We will also provide our prediction on the direction of future studies in this ever-growing field of caspases.
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