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J Immunol Methods. 1992 Sep 18;154(1):99-107.

A simple fluorescence method for surface antigen phenotyping of lymphocytes undergoing DNA fragmentation.

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Department of Pathology, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA 02115.


Apoptosis, a metabolically active process of programmed cell death characterized by DNA fragmentation, is believed to play an important role in development of lymphocyte repertoires and in embryogenesis. Studies of this phenomenon would be greatly facilitated by the development of a simple assay capable of identifying and isolating intact apoptotic cells. A rapid fluorescence assay which identifies relatively small, intact cells containing fragmented DNA is described in this report. Thymocytes in which DNA fragmentation is induced by culture with or without dexamethasone are readily identified by their bright blue fluorescence after a 15 min treatment with Hoechst 33342, a DNA binding fluorochrome which diffuses through cell membranes. Since Hoechst 33342 staining does not require destruction of the cell membrane, it is possible to directly phenotype cell surface antigen expression on Hoechst 33342bright lymphocytes by conventional immunofluorescence techniques and to evaluate membrane integrity of Hoechst 33342bright cells by dye exclusion criteria. The advantages of this system are that it: (1) is rapid and simple, (2) quantitates the percentage of cells fragmenting their DNA and presumably undergoing apoptosis, (3) permits standard immunofluorescence staining of cell surface markers to identify even minor cell subsets of presumably apoptotic cells within heterogeneous populations, (4) provides the tools (fluorescence activated cell sorting) for purifying intact cells containing fragmented DNA for further biochemical studies, and (5) provides a means for identifying cells which exclude vital dyes and in which DNA fragmentation will eventually result in cell death.

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