Decreased production of reactive oxygen intermediates is an early event during in vitro apoptosis of rat thymocytes

Free Radic Biol Med. 1996;20(4):533-42. doi: 10.1016/0891-5849(95)02085-3.


Thymocyte apoptosis is one of the best characterized experimental models of apoptosis that can be induced by a variety of stimuli such as glucocorticoids, ionizing radiation, antibodies, and toxins. Recently, it has been suggested that oxidative stress is a common mediator of apoptosis. However, little is known about the production and possible function of reactive oxygen intermediates (ROI) in thymocytes. We used a highly sensitive flow cytometric assay with the hydrogen peroxide-sensitive dye, 2',7'-dichlorofluorescin diacetate (DCFH-DA), to measure intracellular ROI production in rat thymocytes, to study its primary sources, and to compare ROI levels in normal and apoptotic thymocytes. Apoptosis was induced by incubating the cells in the presence or absence of dexamethasone (Dex) at 37 degrees C in vitro. Normal thymocytes spontaneously produced significant amounts of ROI. Catalase or superoxide dismutase did not affect this intracellular fluorescence, presumably due to their failure to penetrate into the cells. However, N-acetyl-L-cysteine significantly attenuated the fluorescence in a dose-dependent manner. Significant inhibition of the intracellular fluorescence was also observed by addition of N-nitro-L-arginine methyl ester (L-NAME), that could not be reversed by L-arginine. The addition of N-nitro-D-arginine methyl ester (D-NAME) also caused considerable inhibition. This indicates that the inhibition by L-NAME or D-NAME is due to a direct scavenging effect, and nitric oxide production is not likely to be involved. In contrast to neutrophils and macrophages whose superoxide anions are released from membrane-bound NADPH oxidase, the production of ROI in thymocytes is likely to originate mainly from mitochondria, as indicated by the inhibitory effect of the addition of rotenone or antimycin A. The addition of lymphocyte simulators phytohemagglutinin (PHA), concanavalin A (Con A), or phorbol 12-myristate 13-acetate (PMA) enhanced intracellular fluorescence of thymocytes. This increase was abrogated by addition of rotenone or antimycin A. The ROI production was decreased with time after incubation of the thymocytes for 1, 3, and 6 h in vitro. The appearance of apoptosis of thymocytes in vitro, as indicated by DNA content of cells by flow cytometry and DNA ladder formation in agarose gel electrophoresis, was delayed, as compared to the time course of the decreased ROI production. The addition of Dex to the culture medium accelerated both of these processes. The results suggest that a decreased spontaneous production of ROI in thymocytes precedes the spontaneous in vitro apoptosis and Dex exaggerates these changes.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Apoptosis / drug effects
  • Apoptosis / physiology*
  • Dexamethasone / pharmacology
  • Flow Cytometry
  • Fluoresceins
  • Male
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Reactive Oxygen Species / metabolism*
  • Reference Values
  • Thymus Gland / cytology
  • Thymus Gland / drug effects
  • Thymus Gland / metabolism*


  • Fluoresceins
  • Reactive Oxygen Species
  • 2',7'-dichlorofluorescein
  • Dexamethasone