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PLoS One. 2013 Jun 18;8(6):e66147. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0066147. Print 2013.

Multiple Modes of Cell Death Discovered in a Prokaryotic (Cyanobacterial) Endosymbiont.

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Key Laboratory of Bio-Pesticide and Chemical Biology, Ministry of Education, Fujian Agriculture and Forestry University, Fuzhou, China ; Biotech Institute, Fujian Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Fuzhou, China.


Programmed cell death (PCD) is a genetically-based cell death mechanism with vital roles in eukaryotes. Although there is limited consensus on similar death mode programs in prokaryotes, emerging evidence suggest that PCD events are operative. Here we present cell death events in a cyanobacterium living endophytically in the fern Azolla microphylla, suggestive of PCD. This symbiosis is characterized by some unique traits such as a synchronized development, a vertical transfer of the cyanobacterium between plant generations, and a highly eroding cyanobacterial genome. A combination of methods was used to identify cell death modes in the cyanobacterium. Light- and electron microscopy analyses showed that the proportion of cells undergoing cell death peaked at 53.6% (average 20%) of the total cell population, depending on the cell type and host developmental stage. Biochemical markers used for early and late programmed cell death events related to apoptosis (Annexin V-EGFP and TUNEL staining assays), together with visualization of cytoskeleton alterations (FITC-phalloidin staining), showed that all cyanobacterial cell categories were affected by cell death. Transmission electron microscopy revealed four modes of cell death: apoptotic-like, autophagic-like, necrotic-like and autolytic-like. Abiotic stresses further enhanced cell death in a dose and time dependent manner. The data also suggest that dynamic changes in the peptidoglycan cell wall layer and in the cytoskeleton distribution patterns may act as markers for the various cell death modes. The presence of a metacaspase homolog (domain p20) further suggests that the death modes are genetically programmed. It is therefore concluded that multiple, likely genetically programmed, cell death modes exist in cyanobacteria, a finding that may be connected with the evolution of cell death in the plant kingdom.

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