Apparent inhibition of apoptosis by polyamines and aminothiols in DNA fragmentation assays is artifactual

Cell Death Differ. 1996 Jul;3(3):323-30.


We report that, in commonly used DNA fragmentation assays, polyamines and the radioprotective aminothiol WR1065 artifactually depress the degree of spontaneous or induced cellular apoptosis in two distinct ways. Firstly, in assays utilizing Hoechst 33258 dye to measure apoptotic DNA, both amines quench the fluorescence of low affinity dye/DNA binding resulting in preferential underestimation of DNA in the apoptotic DNA fraction and a resultant underestimation of the extent of DNA fragmentation. Secondly, these amines can cause aggregation and condensation of apoptotic DNA, causing anomalous sedimentation under conditions universally employed to separate apoptotic from intact DNA in cell lysates. This anomalous sedimentation of apoptotic DNA leads to underestimation of fragmentation in fluorescence assays as well as in agarose gel assays. We demonstrate that manipulation of the ionic strength of the lysis buffer or lowering the dye concentration ameliorates the effects of dye quenching in the Hoechst assay. Alternatively, this effect is alleviated by substituting DAPI for Hoechst in this assay. Inclusion of a polyanion to the lysis buffer antagonizes the condensation and anomalous sedimentation of apoptotic DNA observed regardless of which dye is used in the assay. These studies call into question the validity of previously reported studies suggesting that polyamines and the radioprotective aminothiol, WR1065, inherently suppress the apoptotic process and underline the need to consider alternative endpoints of apoptosis such as morphology in order to assess effects on cellular apoptosis of exogenously added agents, particularly di- or polycations.