Apoptotic cells in rat thymus were labeled in situ in paraffin-embedded and frozen tissue sections by ligation of double-stranded DNA fragments containing digoxigenin or Texas red. Two forms of double-stranded DNA fragments were prepared using the polymerase chain reaction: one was synthesized using Taq polymerase, which yields products with single-base 3' overhangs, and one using Pfu polymerase, which produces blunt-ended products. Both types of fragment could be ligated to apoptotic nuclei in thymus, indicating the presence in such nuclei of DNA double-strand breaks with single-base 3' overhangs as well as blunt ends. However, in nuclei with DNA damage resulting from a variety of nonapoptotic processes (necrosis, in vitro autolysis, peroxide damage, and heating) single-base 3' overhangs were either nondetectable or present at much lower concentrations than in apoptotic cells. Blunt DNA ends were present in such tissues, but at lower concentrations than in apoptotic cells. In contrast, in all of these forms of DNA damage, nuclei contained abundant 3'-hydroxyls accessible to labeling with terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase. Thus, although single-base 3' overhangs and blunt ends are present in apoptotic nuclei, the specificity of the in situ ligation of 3'-overhang fragments to apoptotic nuclei indicates that apoptotic cells labeled in this way can readily be distinguished from cells with nonapoptotic DNA damage. These data are consistent with the involvement of an endonuclease similar to DNase I in apoptosis, which is predicted to leave short 3' overhangs as well as blunt ends in digestion of chromatin.