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Am J Pathol. 1990 Mar;136(3):593-608.

Apoptosis. The role of the endonuclease.

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Department of Pathology, University of Edinburgh Medical School, United Kingdom.


Cell death by apoptosis mediates several important physiologic and pathologic processes and appears to be intrinsically programmed. Its characteristic features are distinctive morphologic changes of nucleus and cytoplasm, along with cleavage of chromatin at regularly spaced sites. Here we study DNA organization and nuclear structure in apoptotic thymocytes to define the cleavage event and, by implication, the role of the responsible endonuclease. We show that in apoptosis, double-stranded cleavage of DNA generates two classes of chromatin fragments: 70% of DNA exists as long, H1-rich oligonucleosomes bound to the nucleus, and 30% comprises short oligonucleosomes and mononucleosomes, which are depleted in H1, enriched in HMG1 and 2, and not attached to the nucleus. This minority class probably derives from chromatin in a transcriptionally active configuration, which would allow better access to enzymes in the nucleoplasm, producing more complete digestion. The characteristic nucleolar morphology in apoptosis can also be explained in terms of cleavage of the transcriptionally active ribosomal genes, with conservation of the nucleolin-rich fibrillar center. The chromatin cleavage, nucleolar morphologic changes, and chromatin condensation were closely mimicked by micrococcal nuclease digestion of normal thymocyte nuclei in the presence of protease inhibitors. Thus, in apoptosis, selective activation of an endogenous endonuclease appears to be responsible not only for widespread chromatin cleavage but also for the major nuclear morphologic changes.

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