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Cytometry. 2002 Oct 1;49(2):83-9.

Detection of in situ activation of transglutaminase during apoptosis: correlation with the cell cycle phase by multiparameter flow and laser scanning cytometry.

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Brander Cancer Research Institute, New York Medical College, Valhalla, New York, USA.



One of the hallmarks of apoptosis is activation of tissue transglutaminase (Tgase; also called transglutaminase type 2 [TGase 2]). Its activation causes cross-linking of cytoplasmic proteins, making them insoluble and presumably less immunogenic. Several biochemical and cytochemical methods to detect activity of TGase 2 exist, but none has been adapted for multiparameter flow or image cytometry.


Apoptosis of HL-60 or U-937 leukemic cells was induced by camptothecin, tumor necrosis factor alpha, hyperthermia, or the cytotoxic RNase onconase. Two different approaches to detect TGase 2 activation were developed: (a) the unfixed cells were treated with 4',6'-diamidino-2-phenylindole, and sulforhodamine 101 in solutions of nonionic detergents; (b) the TGase 2 substrate fluoresceinated polyamine cadaverine (F-CDV) was administered into the cultures for several hours before cell harvesting. The cells were then fixed and their DNA counterstained with propidium. Cellular fluorescence was measured by flow or laser scanning cytometry.


(a) Exposure of nonapoptotic cells to detergents caused their full lysis, resulting in preparation of isolated nuclei devoid of cytoplasm. Conversely, the cross-linking of cytoplasmic protein by activated TGase 2 in apoptotic cells provided resistance to detergents: the nuclei or nuclear (chromatin) fragments of apoptotic cells remained attached to the cytoplasmic protein, embedded within the proteinaceous "shell." Such cells were identified by their high protein content: intensity of fluorescence after staining with the protein fluorochrome sulforhodamine 101 was markedly higher than that of isolated nuclei. (b) Activation of TGase 2 was also detected by virtue of intense cell labeling with fluoresceinated polyamine cadaverine. Interestingly, in many cells apoptosis progressed without evidence of activation of TGase 2, suggesting that this event may not be a prerequisite for completion of apoptosis.


Activation of TGase 2 can be detected simply by cell resistance to detergents or in situ reactivity with F-CDV. Both methods allow one to correlate activation of TGase 2 with the cell cycle position. However, because activation of TGase 2 is not always detected during apoptosis, the lack of the activation cannot be considered a marker of nonapoptotic cells. Hence, an apoptotic index based solely on TGase 2 activation may underestimate incidence of apoptosis.

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