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Eur J Cell Biol. 1996 Sep;71(1):105-19.

Internucleosomal DNA fragmentation in cultured cells under conditions reported to induce apoptosis may be caused by mycoplasma endonucleases.

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Department of Anatomy and Embryology, Ruhr-University, Bochum, Germany.


DNA fragmentation is a common biochemical hallmark of apoptosis. It is catalyzed by endogenous Ca2+, Mg(2+)-dependent endonuclease(s). Although the exact identity of the apoptotic endonuclease is still a matter of debate, a number of candidate nucleases have been proposed like NUC18, DNase II and DNase I. Relatively large amounts of nucleases are also expressed by mycoplasmas, cell wall-less bacteria of the class Mollicutes, which are found as contaminants in up to 45% of the continuous cell lines in current use. In order to clarify the effect of these pathogens on the investigation of apoptosis in cell culture systems, we looked for biochemical markers (DNA fragmentation, nuclease expression) and morphological changes characteristic of apoptosis (cell shrinkage, chromatin condensation, apoptotic bodies) in Mycoplasma hyorhinis-free and -infected cultures of the human pancreatic adenocarcinoma cell line PaTu 8902 and of mouse NIH 3T3 fibroblasts. For that purpose we employed cells cultured under standard conditions and cells exposed to the protein synthesis inhibitor cycloheximide, which is known to induce apoptosis in various cell systems. After exposure to cycloheximide only the mycoplasma-positive cells exhibited internucleosomal DNA degradation. In contrast, nuclease activities in the molecular range of 47 to 54 kDa were detected in cell homogenates and culture supernatants of infected cultures of both control and cycloheximide-treated cells, whereas mycoplasma-free cultures were nuclease-negative. The expression of the nucleases and the cycloheximide-induced DNA fragmentation were suppressed by the prokaryote-specific protein synthesis inhibitor chloramphenicol. Moreover, partially purified nucleases from supernatants of infected cells were able to cleave the DNA of isolated substrate nuclei at internucleosomal sites. These data indicate that DNA ladder formation in cell culture systems can also be caused by mycoplasmal nucleases which apparently penetrate the host cells after cycloheximide treatment or more generally after cellular stress. Therefore, internucleosomal DNA fragmentation in established cell lines has to be regarded with care, unless mycoplasmal infection can be excluded, or the existence of endogenous endonucleases can be proven. The presence of endonucleolytic activities of about 47 to 54 kDa molecular mass has now to be regarded as highly indicative of contaminations with M. hyorhinis. In contrast, the expression of an apoptotic morphology was not restricted to infected cells; in both mycoplasma-free and -contaminated cultures, cells with condensed chromatin were observed after staining with the DNA binding dye Hoechst 33342. Electron microscopic studies revealed that most of the cells containing compacted DNA were phagocytosed by unaffected fellow cells. Presumably because of the relatively long exposure (72 h) to cycloheximide we also observed secondary necrosis as indicated by the parallel occurrence of morphological characteristics of apoptosis (chromatin condensation) and necrosis (loss of membrane integrity and organelle swelling).

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