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Eur J Cell Biol. 1998 May;76(1):77-83.

Surface exposure of phosphatidylserine during apoptosis of rat thymocytes precedes nuclear changes.

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Department of Pathology, Maastricht University, The Netherlands.


Cell surface exposure of phosphatidylserine (PS) during apoptosis serves recognition and removal of the dying cell by phagocytes. Loss of phospholipid asymmetry and PS exposure is investigated by immunocytochemistry and related to morphological changes. Loss of membrane asymmetry was determined on dexamethasone-treated rat thymocytes using the PS specific probe annexin V. Thymocytes incubated in the presence of dexamethasone were studied in time series during the execution of the apoptotic program. Thymocytes first start to expose PS at their cell surface. At this initial stage the barrier function of the plasma membrane remains intact. At a later stage the plasma membrane becomes leaky for compounds like propidium iodide and subsequently the cell disintegrates into apoptotic bodies. Microscopical evaluation of dexamethasone-treated thymocytes showed that the cells with an apoptotic morphology all bound annexin V. The cells with a normal viable morphology lacked annexin V binding except for those cells that started to shed small vesicles. These vesicles were positive for annexin V, indicating a local disturbance of the phospholipid asymmetry. The local exposure of PS is considered to be a very early event of apoptosis, preceding the full sequence of morphological changes at the ultrastructural level.

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