During conjugation in the ciliated protozoan Tetrahymena, new macronuclei differentiate from germinal zygotic micronuclei while parental (old) macronuclei are eliminated in two stages, condensation or pycnosis coincident with cessation of transcription followed by resorption. We show that pycnosis is accompanied by degradation of old macronuclear DNA into oligonucleosome-sized fragments, a hallmark of programmed cell death, or apoptosis, in a variety of eukaryotic systems. As expected, oligonucleosome formation does not occur in the new micro- and macronuclei, confirming the coordination of different developmental fates for different nuclei in a common cytoplasm. NULLI 3 conjugants have wild-type old macronuclei but lack chromosome 3 germinally and hence in the new macronucleus. In NULLI 3 conjugants, old macronuclear pycnosis and oligonucleosome fragmentation occur normally but the resorption step fails, and the pycnotic old macronucleus is retained, demonstrating that the two steps are genetically separable and thus distinct and implying that genes on chromosome 3 in the new macronucleus are required for the resorption step. Comparison of whole cell polypeptides synthesized during stages of macronuclear development in both wild-type and NULLI 3 crosses reveal similar profiles. However, a polypeptide (apparent M(r) of 53 kDa) synthesized during old macronuclear elimination is not observed in NULLI 3 conjugants; its role, if any, in elimination of the old macronucleus is unknown. The results show that the old macronucleus is selectively destroyed by a mechanism which is remarkably similar to apoptosis in other eukaryotes and that the zygotic genome is required for the resorption step.