On the paradigm of altruistic suicide in the unicellular world

Aurora M. Nedelcu, William W. Driscoll, Pierre M. Durand, Matthew D. Herron, Armin Rashidi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

103 Scopus citations


Altruistic suicide is best known in the context of programmed cell death (PCD) in multicellular individuals, which is understood as an adaptive process that contributes to the development and functionality of the organism. After the realization that PCD-like processes can also be induced in single-celled lineages, the paradigm of altruistic cell death has been extended to include these active cell death processes in unicellular organisms. Here, we critically evaluate the current conceptual framework and the experimental data used to support the notion of altruistic suicide in unicellular lineages, and propose new perspectives. We argue that importing the paradigm of altruistic cell death from multicellular organisms to explain active death in unicellular lineages has the potential to limit the types of questions we ask, thus biasing our understanding of the nature, origin, and maintenance of this trait. We also emphasize the need to distinguish between the benefits and the adaptive role of a trait. Lastly, we provide an alternative framework that allows for the possibility that active death in single-celled organisms is a maladaptive trait maintained as a byproduct of selection on pro-survival functions, but that could-under conditions in which kin/group selection can act-be co-opted into an altruistic trait.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3-20
Number of pages18
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2011


  • Adaptive role
  • Co-option
  • Evolution
  • Maladaptive trait
  • Programmed cell death


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