What is cellular stress?

In an organ, there is a balance between the growth and death of the cells that make it up, which is called tissue homeostasis[1]. Each cell is able to grow to adapt to a physiological or pathological condition, change conformation or potentially multiply. It will also be capable of triggering a programmed death mechanism if the need arises or the pressure to which it is subjected is too great.

During cellular stress, this homeostasis is in danger and the cell will have several possibilities to respond depending on the type of stress. Overall, as long as the stimulus is manageable, the cell will adapt. Otherwise, it will have to put in place response mechanisms that may vary[2, 3].

The Heat Shock response

As the name suggests, this pathway was discovered by studying cells subjected to thermal cell stress[4]. It is now acknowledged that other stresses may activate it but the name has remained.  This response consists in increasing the number and/or activity of chaperone proteins in order to prevent the proteins synthesized by the cell from folding incorrectly. The folding of proteins is essential to their proper function, and it is not uncommon for certain diseases to result from a protein synthesized correctly, but whose final conformation does not allow adequate functioning. In the case of cellular stress, proteins can lose their final shape, unfold, fold back or even aggregate with each other, when they should not. The heat shock response combats this effect, allowing the cell to continue to function in sub-optimal conditions. This response gives the cell a protection known as thermotolerance[5, 6, 7].

stress cellulaire

At first, gene transcription and translation is paused to avoid the synthesis of too many poorly folded proteins that the cell could not manage. In a second stage, transcription factors will come into play and activate the synthesis of specific molecules, heat shock factors (HSF)[8]. We have at our disposal 4 isoforms of these factors, HSF1, 2, 3 and 4 (yes, us scientists are not always very creative !), each having a different role, but of which the most studied for its function in the response to cellular stress is HSF1[9]. Under normal conditions, HSF1 keeps its inactive form, a cytoplasmic monomer, in interaction with chaperone proteins[10].

When the cell is subjected to stress, we observe an accumulation of poorly folded proteins that will compete with HSF1 to bind to chaperone proteins. From that moment on, HSF1 is released, will partner with its counterparts to form an active trimer that will bind to DNA and promote the specific expression of certain genes, including those encoding heat shock proteins (HSP).

HSP can be expressed constitutionally, as Hsp90 which is one of the chaperone proteins now HSF1 in its inactive form. Others will be specifically expressed during cellular stress, such as Hsp27 or Hsp70[5]. They will have different actions but will generally go in the direction of cellular survival. They can bind to poorly folded proteins[11] to prevent their aggregation, guarantee their function and maintain the integrity of the cytoskeleton[12]. They also block programmed cell death by inhibiting certain pro-apoptotic proteins such as caspases or cytochrome C[13, 14, 15].

The Unfolded Protein Response (UPR)

As we have seen previously, the correct folding of proteins is essential to their function, but for a protein to work properly, it must also undergo all kinds of post-translational modifications such as glycosylation, disulfide bridge formation, oligomerization… All this takes place in a specific organelle, the endoplasmic reticulum. Some shocks, such as caloric restriction or reduced oxygen supply, can cause endoplasmic reticulum stress, resulting in an influx of poorly folded, poorly modified proteins, a mechanism known as unfolded protein response (UPR)[16, 17]. This signalling pathway is activated via specific proteins which are, for the most part, present in inactive form under physiological conditions, and will be activated during cellular stress. These include IRE-1, PERK and ATF6, which will bind to DNA and encourage the synthesis of certain genes coding in particular for chaperone proteins and antioxidants[16].

The UPR is subjected to a delicate balance related to the ability of the reticulum to correctly fold the proteins and to manage those which are not. When UPR is able to improve this ability of the reticulum to cope with stress, via the synthesis of factors and proteins such as IRE-1, it will encourage cell survival. If the reticulum is overwhelmed, the UPR will rather promote cell death by mechanisms still little known.

The genotoxic response

The DNA contained in the nucleus of our cells is usually in double-stranded form, like a helix. During certain events, in particular DNA transcription and replication, it is found in single-stranded form: the enzymes that will allow these phenomena need access to the information contained in the DNA and will separate the two strands in order to copy or transcribe them. It is at this time that DNA is most sensitive to stresses such as radiation, ultraviolet radiation or anti-cancer treatments (sometimes called DNA intercalants).  It will be possible to break the DNA either on one strand (single-strand break or SSB) or on both strands (double-strand break or DBS)[18]. Our cells are able to repair these breaks to some extent but sometimes they induce different signalling, particularly through p53 (a transcription factor that regulates apoptosis, autophagy and cell cycle) and NF-κB (a pro-inflammatory and pro-apoptotic cytokine).

stress cellulaire

Here again, everything is a matter of balance. When DNA damage is repairable, the signaling pathways engaged will be in favor of cell survival. If the breaks are too large, p53 and NF-κB come into play and will activate the cell death path.

These signalling routes are extremely complex, interconnected and still studied to this day.

Oxidative stress response

Reactive oxygen species (also called ROS) are one of the main causes of cellular stress. The survival of a cell depends on a balance between oxidants (oxygen and ROS) and antioxidants (enzymes and proteins such as glutathione, catalase or superoxide dismutases) that can be dysfunctional[19]. Most of the time, the cell is able to fight against oxidative stress and to promote its survival but, as for the previous cellular stresses mentioned, it happens that the oxidative:antioxidant balance is too deregulated for the cell to correct it. It will then enter processes of apoptosis or necrosis[19, 20, 21].

The best known ROS are hydrogen peroxide (H202, also called hydrogen peroxide), hydroxyl radicals (OH-) and nitric oxide (NO-). They have various origins, intra- or extracellular. The largest source of intracellular oxidants is our mitochondria and its respiratory chain: when it produces energy, it also produces ROS which are generally treated with superoxide dismutases. In addition to this intracellular source, our lifestyle greatly influences the generation of ROS. External causes include prolonged exposure to UV, pollution, pesticides, tobacco, alcohol, an unbalanced diet, too much sport, stress, or a nutritional deficiency in one or more antioxidants.

The response to oxidative stress combines a specific response and mechanisms common to other stresses, such as activation of chaperone protein synthesis[22] or NF-κB and p53[23]. It is not yet very clear how apoptosis induction takes place but it seems that H2O2 activates a system called Fas-FasL, which in turn induces caspase activation[24]. NO•, on the other hand, seems to be capable of inactivating certain antioxidant enzymes such as superoxide dismutase[25]. Interestingly, ROS could also activate a different cell death mechanism, necrosis. This occurs through the inactivation of caspases, normally pro-apoptotic molecules whose absence of stimulation will force the cell to turn to another form of death. The commitment to necrosis can also be explained by a decrease in ATP in the cell, inherent in damage to the mitochondria by too many oxidants[26]. Finally, a last mode can be engaged, that of autophagy, although the mechanisms leading to it are not yet clear[27].

cellular stress

Cellular stress and aging

Many of the stresses we have detailed worsen with age. Indeed, many diseases, in particular diabetes, neurodegenerative diseases (Parkinson and Alzheimer in the first line) or cancers, are partly caused by a deregulation of proteostasis and balance oxidants:antioxidants (see causes of aging). There is, for example, evidence that HSP synthesis increases with age[28] and is often coupled with deregulation of the expression of certain genes via the HSF1 signaling system, which functions less and less well[29]. Overall, stress, especially oxidative stress, is intimately linked to inflammation (via the production of cytokines, such as NF-κB) and when it becomes chronic, it is associated with an increase in ROS. It is a kind of loop that maintains itself and accelerates our aging. Cellular stress is therefore both a cause and a consequence of cellular pathologies and aging.

Some definitions

Cytokines: these are molecules synthesized by our immune cells that allow communication between cells. They are often associated with inflammation because they are the major actors in this process.

Chaperone proteins: these are small proteins whose role is to accompany the proteins during synthesis until they acquire their final conformation. They also prevent protein aggregation.

Transcription factor: it is a molecule that can bind to specific zones of DNA, called promoters, that regulate gene expression. They may have an activating or inhibiting role in transcription.

Monomer/dimer/protein trimer: when proteins form, to reach their final function, they sometimes need to bind together. When they leave the reticulum, they are in the form of monomer (i.e. a single peptide chain that forms a single protein). In the cytoplasm, they can then bind with one, two or more proteins forming dimers (two chains), trimers (three chains)… A distinction is made between homodimers, which are the combination of two identical proteins, and heterodimers, which result from the binding of two isoforms of the same protein or two different proteins.

Apoptosis: this is the mechanism triggered by the cell itself when it decides to die. Apoptosis is distinguished from necrosis by the signalling pathways involved in the establishment of the cell death process.

Autophagy: it is the mechanism by which a cell is able to get rid of certain dysfunctional organelles, by digesting them or by expelling them from its cytoplasm. When the cell manages to manage these dysfunctions, this way is pro-survival. On the other hand, when there are too many organelles that no longer work or when autophagy is not sufficient to treat them, this way will be pro-death.

All our articles on Cellular stress and aging:

Cellular stress and aging, a necessary duo?

6949253131_028b82bfaf_qAlthough it is recognized as a risk factor by the scientific community, many questions remain regarding cellular stress. Its main role in aging-related diseases and in aging itself is still being studied.

Part 1: The different types of cellular stress

24206656442_4b68a7bf45_qCellular stress can mean many different mechanisms, whether the stress is mechanical, toxic, chemical, thermic, osmotic, ionizing… They all play a role in the aging process of our cells.

Part 2: The organelles targeted by cellular stress

5195893155_a7140e7f47_oCellular stress gets transmitted through several organelles in our cells, especially those of the mitochondria, the mitochondria and the nucleus, among others. Their response can vary and only give the cell under stress two viable options: adapt and survive, or die.

Part 3: Dealing with cellular stress

6964655863_07889541b3_oIn order to slow down the aging process of our cells, we must control our cellular stress. In this article, we will look into the techniques and/or treatments currently used to treat all forms of cellular stress.


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Dr. Marion Tible

Marion Tible Long Long Life



Marion Tible has a PhD in cellular biology and physiopathology. Formerly a researcher in thematics varying from cardiology to neurodegenerative diseases, she is now part of Long Long Life team and is involved in scientific writing and anti-aging research.

More about the Long Long Life team

Marion Tible est docteur en biologie cellulaire et physiopathologie. Ancienne chercheuse dans des thématiques oscillant de la cardiologie aux maladies neurodégénératives, elle est aujourd’hui impliquée au sein de Long Long Life pour la rédaction scientifique et la recherche contre le vieillissement.

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Dr Guilhem Velvé Casquillas



Physics PhD, CEO NBIC Valley, CEO Long Long Life, CEO Elvesys Microfluidic Innovation Center

More about the Long Long Life team

Docteur en physique, CEO NBIC Valley, CEO Long Long Life, CEO Elvesys Microfluidic Innovation Center

En savoir plus sur l’équipe de Long Long Life