DNA fragmentation and nuclear condensation are key features in the regulated cell death of higher animal cells. Nuclear death also occurs as part of a developmentally programmed process during the sexual life cycle of the unicellular organism Tetrahymena. We examined the regulation of nuclear death and the relationship between DNA fragmentation and chromatin condensation in this model system. Nuclear death is accompanied by DNA digestion to low-molecular-weight oligonucleosomal-length fragments, in agreement with a previous study, indicating an endonuclease-like activity typical of apoptosis in higher organisms. Actinomycin D and cycloheximide block DNA digestion as well as nuclear condensation suggesting that nuclear death is under genetic regulation. DNA digestion is completely blocked by aurin, a general nuclease inhibitor. In addition, when DNA fragmentation is blocked, nuclear condensation also fails to occur. Moreover, a kinetic analysis of DNA breakdown, using agarose gels, shows that some DNA digestion occurs before nuclear condensation has taken place. Thus the initiation of DNA digestion may provide conditions necessary for nuclear condensation. Temporary inhibition of nuclear death aborts the death program since after removal of inhibitors cells revert to a vegetative pathway without having eliminated the old or developed the new macronucleus. Zn2+ and EGTA, both of which inhibit apoptosis in some cell types, fail to prevent nuclear condensation or DNA digestion in Tetrahymena, suggesting a requirement here for an endonuclease which is Ca2+-independent and Zn2+-insensitive. With the TUNEL assay, DNA breakdown is detected exclusively in the condensed macronucleus (and occasional micronuclei identified as degenerating haploid products of meiosis), but not in precondensed macronuclei. These studies show that apoptotic-like DNA fragmentation occurs after condensation of the degenerating macronucleus. However, early DNA digestion may be critical for nuclear condensation and subsequent degeneration.