Cleavage of cellular chromatin at internucleosomal sites is a characteristic change of DNA integrity in cells undergoing apoptosis. We have developed an assay for quantitation of internucleosomal DNA fragmentation in apoptotic cells. This technique involves purification of cellular DNA, dephosphorylation of the DNA ends, labeling of DNA with 32P at the 5'-end, gel electrophoresis through agarose, and quantitation of the radioactivity in DNA bands. This assay, which is about 1000- to 2000-fold more sensitive than visualization of DNA bands by ethidium staining, allows the detection of DNA fragments at picogram levels. A method for quantitatively determining the number of fragmented DNA strands is also described. Application of this new assay to evaluate the time course of internucleosomal DNA fragmentation was demonstrated in apoptotic cells induced by an anticancer nucleoside analogue.