Inflammasomes and Pyroptosis

In today’s post, guest blogger,  Martha O’Brien, PhD, provides a preview of her upcoming AAI poster and block symposium talk on the inflammasome, caspase-1 activity and pyroptosis.

Schematic of the Caspase-Glo 1 Inflammasome Assay.

Schematic of the Caspase-Glo 1 Inflammasome Assay.

Responding rapidly to microbial pathogens and damage-associated molecular markers is critical to our innate immune system. Caspase-1 is pivotal in this process leading to processing and release of essential cytokines and an immunogenic form of cell death, termed pyroptosis. Upon sensing pathogen-associated and damage-associated molecular patterns (PAMPs and DAMPs), innate immune cells form inflammasome protein complexes that recruit and activate caspase-1 (canonical inflammasomes). In addition, other inflammatory caspases, 4 and 5 in humans and 11 in mice, directly bind bacterial lipopolysaccharides (LPS), triggering pyroptosis (non-canonical inflammasome). LPS-triggered non-canonical inflammasomes in mice and humans ultimately lead to canonical inflammasome engagement and caspase-1 activation (1–3).  Caspase-1 was originally termed interleukin converting enzyme (ICE) for its well-established role in processing IL-1ß and IL-18, two important inflammation cytokines. How caspase-1 mediates pyroptosis is less well understood, but is beginning to be delineated. Recently, a substrate of the inflammatory caspases, gasdermin D, was identified and its processed fragment, gasdermin-N domain, was shown to be required for pyroptosis in non-canonical inflammasome circumstances (4, 5). The precise role of gasdermin D in canonical inflammasome-triggered pyroptosis is still under investigation. Linking inflammatory caspases directly to pyroptosis is a notable step in understanding the mechanism of this important form of cell death.

Pyroptosis is clearly one means of releasing processed IL-1ß and IL-18 from the cell. However depending on the cell type and stimulus, there is evidence for inflammasome engagement, caspase-1 activation, and release of IL-1ß in the absence of cell death (6, 7). On the flip-side there is also evidence for caspase-1 mediated pyroptosis that helps clear bacteria, independent of IL-1ß and IL-18 involvement (8). To enable further studies on the inflammasome and in particular, assessing the connections between caspase-1 activation, pyroptosis, and cytokine release, Promega developed a new tool to conveniently monitor caspase-1 activation, the Caspase-Glo® 1 Inflammasome Assay.  This bioluminescent, plate-based assay is used to measure caspase-1 activity directly in cell cultures or to monitor released caspase-1 activity in culture medium from treated cells. This flexibility allows easy multiplexing to monitor all three outcomes of inflammasome stimulation; caspase-1 activity, pyroptosis, and release of IL-1ß and IL-18. Caspase-1 activation typically is monitored indirectly with western blots of processed caspase-1. Now the activity of the enzyme can be monitored directly, providing accurate information on temporal aspects of the inflammasome. The assay can be readily combined with real-time measures of cell death (e.g., CellTox™ Green Cytotoxicity Assay) and some of the culture medium can be removed for IL-1ß/IL-18 assessment, leaving the cells and remaining culture medium for caspase-1 activity measurements. At the upcoming meeting of the American Association of Immunologists (AAI) in Seattle, May 13th-17th, oral and poster presentations will highlight use of the Caspase-Glo® 1 Inflammasome Assay and its value for exploring the relationship between inflammasomes and pyroptosis.


  1. Schmid-Burgk et al. (2015) Caspase-4 mediates non-canonical activation of the NLRP3 inflammasome in human myeloid cells. J. Immunol. 45, 2911–7.
  2. Baker et al. (2015) NLRP3 inflammasome activation downstream of cytoplasmic LPS recognition by both caspase-4 and caspase-5. J. Immunol. 45, 2918–26.
  3. Ruhl, S. and P. Broz (2015) Caspase-11 activates a canonical NLRP3 inflammasome by promoting K+ Eur. J. Immunol. 45, 2927–36.
  4. Shi et al. (2015) Cleavage of GSDMD by inflammatory caspases determines pyroptotic cell death. Nature 526, 660–5.
  5. Kayagaki et al. (2015) Caspase-11 cleaves gasdermin D for non-canonical inflammasome signaling. Nature 526, 666–71.
  6. Gaidt et al. (2016) Human monocytes engage an alternative inflammasome pathway. Immunity 44, 833–46.
  7. Chen et al. (2014) The neutrophil NLRC4 inflammasome selectively promotes IL-1ß maturation without pyroptosis during acuteSalmonella Cell Reports 8, 570–82.
  8. Miao et al. (2010) Caspase-1-induced pyroptosis is an innate immune effector mechanism against intracellular bacteria. Nature Immunology 11, 1136–42.

Detecting Apoptosis

Apoptosis morphology

Progression of morphology changes during apoptosis.

The concept of cell death as a normal cell fate was articulated only three years after Schleiden and Schwann introduced the Cell Theory when, in 1874, Vogt described natural cell death as an integral part of toad development (as cited in Cotter and Curtin, 2003). Since these early observations, natural cell death has been described “anew” several times. In 1885 Flemming provided the first morphological description of a natural cell death process, which we now label “apoptosis”, a term coined by Kerr and colleagues to describe the unique morphology associated with a cell death that differs from necrosis (as cited in Kerr et al. 1972).

In the 1970s and 1980s, studies revealed that apoptosis not only had specific morphological characteristics but that it was also a tightly regulated process with specific biochemical characteristics. Studies of cell lineage in the nematode, Caenorhabditis elegans, showed that apoptosis was a normal feature of the nematode’s invariant developmental program (Hengartner, 1997). At the biochemical level, Wyllie showed that DNA degradation by a specific endonuclease during apoptosis resulted in a DNA ladder composed of mono- and oligonucleosomal-sized fragments (Wyllie, 1980).

These and many other studies have proven that apoptosis is a critical component of development, and when it doesn’t happen appropriately, it can be pathological, leading to cancers or other diseases. Therefore, understanding how and when apoptosis occurs and the many signals that can trigger this process is a focus of many laboratory experiments.

There are many ways to detect apoptosis in cells or tissues. This blog describes some of the most common ones. Continue reading

The 64 billion dollar question: Is my compound or treatment toxic?

CellTox™ Green Dye is excluded from viable cells, but it binds to DNA from cells with compromised membrane integrity.

CellTox™ Green Dye is excluded from viable cells, but it binds to DNA from cells with compromised membrane integrity.

Determining the exact cause/effect relationship between a treatment and a cellular outcome is not a simple matter, but is critical for really understanding how therapeutic treatments affect target cells or exercise any off-target effects.

Four key factors are critical for determining whether or not a particular treatment or compound is toxic.

  1. Dosage (usually addressed by a dilution series)
  2. Exposure time
  3. Mechanism of Action
  4. Cell Type

In a recent Promega Webinar, A Cytotoxicity Assay That Fits Your Timeline, Promega scientist Dr. Andrew Niles presented the CellTox™ Green Cytotoxicity Assay—a new tool that gives researchers more power to answer the question “Is my compound or treatment toxic?” Continue reading

Sirtuins and Marathon Running: No Pain No Gain?

[picapp align=”right” wrap=”false” link=”term=marathon&iid=8745671″ src=”9/f/a/5/Prague_International_Marathon_d037.jpg?adImageId=12882162&imageId=8745671″ width=”234″ height=”288″ /]This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgOn Saturday I ran 12 miles. “Well, at least I have staved off apoptosis in my peripheral blood mononuclear cells” I thought as I hobbled down the stairs on Sunday morning. Normally I don’t think about mononuclear cells on Sunday mornings, only of coffee. However, a paper published last week in BMC Physiology changed that for me, at least temporarily.

The paper, by Marfe et al, investigated whether the physiological stress associated with strenuous exercise may cause apoptosis and contribute to loss of lymphocytes. This paper investigated whether apoptosis is increased in cells of the immune system after running a marathon. The authors studied the expression of various stress-related proteins in peripheral blood lymphocytes in 10 male amateur runners, examining the expression of various antioxidants, stress proteins and apoptotic markers before and after (2-hours post-race) running a marathon. They found that expression of the apoptotic marker bax was decreased significantly after the marathon, while levels of antiapoptotic bcl-2 RNA increased. The amount of propcaspase 9 did not change pre and post race, indicating that there was no change in levels of apoptosis before and after the race. Continue reading

Apoptosis in Normal and Cancer Cell Biology Webinar

webinarCurious about the role that apoptosis plays in normal and cancer cell biology? Do you need to monitor apoptosis in cells? Do you need to know what apoptosis biomarkers to follow for a particular study? Register today for the Science/AAAS Webinar: Apoptotic Signaling in Normal and Cancer Cell Biology (sponsored by Promega).

Describing Life and Death in the Cell

4621CALife is complicated. So is death. And when the cells in your multiwell plate die after compound treatment, it’s not enough to know that they died. You need to know how they died: apoptosis or necrosis? Or, have you really just reduced viability, rather than induced death? Is the cytotoxicity you see dose-dependent? If you look earlier during drug treatment of your cells, do you see markers of apoptosis? If you wait longer, do you observe necrosis? If you reduce the dosage of your test compound, is it still cytotoxic? Continue reading