Programmed cell death is activated, by different stimuli and in many cell types, to regulate cell population balance during tissue proliferation and embryogenesis. Its initial event seems to be, in most cases, the activation of a Ca(2+)-dependent endonuclease, causing DNA cleavage into nucleosomic fragments. Its morphological expression is characterized by deep nuclear changes, consisting of typical cap-shaped chromatin marginations, followed by nuclear fragmentation and final formation of numerous micronuclei. Cytoplasmic damage appears in a very late stage of the process and the greatest part of the phenomenon appears to take place despite good preservation of the plasma membrane and organellar component. In the present study we analyzed apoptosis in camptothecin-treated HL60 leukaemia cells, and in freshly isolated mouse thymocytes treated with dexamethasone. The process was first quantified and time monitored by flow cytometry. Subsequently the specimens were processed for morphological examination in order to investigate the behaviour of the different nuclear domains. To follow DNA and RNA localization, we utilized osmium ammine and DNase-colloidal gold cytochemical reactions. The concentration of most DNA in the cap-shaped structures was demonstrated by these reactions. Confocal microscopy of cells processed by in situ nick-translation suggested that DNA was firstly cleaved and subsequently condensed in cup-shaped structures. Despite the strong nuclear modifications, nucleoli could be clearly recognized until the late apoptotic stages.
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