A single-strand specific nuclease was identified during a particular stage of a defined cellular differentiation pathway characteristic of xylem development. Using a hormone-inducible system in which cultured mesophyll cells of Zinnia elegans differentiated to xylem cells in synchrony, the enzymatic activity on single-stranded (ss) DNA was highest during the maturation phase of differentiation. Nondifferentiating cells contained little of this activity throughout a similar course of culture. After electrophoresis of extracts from differentiating cells, a 43-kilodalton (kDa) polypeptide was detected by its activity in the gels containing either ssDNA or RNA. Lectins specific for mannose residues on glycoproteins bound to the 43-kDa nuclease and were used to distinguish it from several ribonucleases. The nuclease was purified by a two-step chromatographic procedure: a lectin-affinity column followed by a phosphocellulose column. The purified protein was determined to be a single polypeptide with a relative molecular mass of 43000 by the analysis of its mobility during sodium dodecyl sulfate-polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis and by gel filtration of the native enzyme. A sensitive detection system using biotinylated-concanavalin A and avidin was demonstrated to be specific as a probe for the nuclease protein. An N-terminal amino-acid sequence was derived from 5 pmol of the enzyme. The nuclease was most active on ssDNA at pH 5.5 in the presence of Zn(2+) and dithiothreitol. The purified preparation hydrolyzed RNA and to a lesser extent, native DNA. It digested closed circular duplex DNA by introducing a single endonucleolytic cleavage followed by random hydrolysis. During the induced pathway of synchronous differentiation in Zinnia the 43-kDa nuclease rapidly increased just prior to the onset of visibly differentiated features, and developed to a maximum level during xylem cell maturation. At this time a similar but slightly smaller nuclease appeared and became dominant as differentiation continued, and subsequently both enzymes decayed. After autolysis, a nuclease of about 37 kDa was found together with the 43-kDa enzyme in the culture medium. Complementing these analyses was the examination of the tissue distribution of the 43-kDa enzyme in Zinnia and other dicotyledonous plants, which also indicated an invivo role of the nuclease in autolysis, the terminal stage of vascular differentiation in plants. The Zinnia nuclease is therefore a potential marker for xylogenesis.