Extrinsic apoptosis relies on TNF-family receptor activation by immune cells or receptor-activating drugs. Here, we monitored cell cycle progression at a resolution of minutes to relate apoptosis kinetics and cell-to-cell heterogeneities in death decisions to cell cycle phases. Interestingly, we found that cells in S phase delay TRAIL receptor-induced death in favour of mitosis, thereby passing on an apoptosis-primed state to their offspring. This translates into two distinct fates, apoptosis execution post mitosis or cell survival from inefficient apoptosis. Transmitotic resistance is linked to Mcl-1 upregulation and its increased accumulation at mitochondria from mid-S phase onwards, which allows cells to pass through mitosis with activated caspase-8, and with cells escaping apoptosis after mitosis sustaining sublethal DNA damage. Antagonizing Mcl-1 suppresses cell cycle-dependent delays in apoptosis, prevents apoptosis-resistant progression through mitosis and averts unwanted survival after apoptosis induction. Cell cycle progression therefore modulates signal transduction during extrinsic apoptosis, with Mcl-1 governing decision making between death, proliferation and survival. Cell cycle progression thus is a crucial process from which cell-to-cell heterogeneities in fates and treatment outcomes emerge in isogenic cell populations during extrinsic apoptosis.

This article has an associated First Person interview with the first author of the paper.

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