It was previously shown (Paddenberg et al (1996) Eur J Cell Biol 69, 105 - 119) that cells of established lines like NIH3T3 fibroblasts and the human pancreatic adenocarcinoma PaTu 8902 line only degrade their chromatin at internucleosomal sites after an apoptotic stimulus when infected with Mycoplasma hyorhinis. In order to distinguish mycoplasma nucleases (Mr 47 - 54 kDa) from already described eukaryotic apoptotic enzymes, the mycoplasma nucleases were partially purified from serum-free culture supernatants and further characterized. Here we demonstrate directly that the enriched mycoplasma nucleases were able to fragment the DNA of nuclease-negative substrate nuclei at internucleosomal sites. The DNA degradation was accompanied by morphological changes typical of apoptosis like chromatin condensation and margination followed by shrinkage of the nuclei. The biochemical characterization revealed that the mycoplasma nucleases had a neutral to weakly basic pH-optimum. They required both calcium and magnesium in the mM range for maximal activation and were inhibited by zinc chloride, EGTA and EDTA. In two dimensional zymograms they migrated as three spots with isoelectic points between 8.1 and 9.5. They were not inhibited by monomeric actin. Our data also demonstrate that nuclear extracts prepared from nuclei isolated from Mycoplasma hyorhinis infected cells contained the mycoplasma nuclease activities leading to their internucleosomal DNA-degradation after incubation in the presence of calcium and magnesium.