Distinction of apoptotic and necrotic cell death by in situ labelling of fragmented DNA

Cell Tissue Res. 1994 Dec;278(3):549-56. doi: 10.1007/BF00331373.


The occurrence and spatial distribution of intracellular DNA fragmentation was investigated by in situ 3' end labelling of DNA breaks in K562 cells treated in such a way to cause either apoptotic or necrotic cell death. The localisation of DNA breaks was examined by confocal laser microscopy and compared with the electron-microscopic appearance of the cells. In addition, the number of cells with fragmented DNA was counted and compared with the number of dead cells, as determined by the nigrosin dye exclusion test. Apoptosis was induced by cultivation of the cells in the presence of actinomycin D. Cells undergoing apoptosis were characterised by massive intracellular DNA fragmentation that was highly ordered into successive steps. Cells in early stages of the apoptotic process had DNA breaks diffusely distributed in the entire nucleus, except the nucleolus, with crescent-like accumulations beyond the nuclear membrane. In the more advanced stages, the nucleus was transformed into many round bodies with intense labelling. Intracellular accumulations of fragmented DNA corresponded exactly to electron-dense chromatin seen in the electron microscope, whereas diffuse DNA breaks had no morphological correlate at the ultrastructural level. In necrosis induced by ionomycin, NaN3, or rapid freezing combined with thawing, no DNA fragmentation occurred at the onset of cell death, but appeared 24 h later. This fragmentation was not characterised by a unique morphology, but represented the breakdown of the chromatin in the configuration remaining after cell death. Therefore, apoptosis is characterised by DNA fragmentation that proceeds in a regular orderly sequence at the beginning of cell death, and can be detected by in situ 3'end labelling of DNA breaks.

MeSH terms

  • Apoptosis*
  • Cell Line
  • Cell Nucleus / drug effects
  • Cell Nucleus / ultrastructure
  • DNA Damage*
  • DNA Probes
  • Dactinomycin / pharmacology
  • Microscopy, Confocal


  • DNA Probes
  • Dactinomycin