Apoptotic DNA Fragmentation - Mechanism


The enzyme responsible for apoptotic DNA fragmentation is the Caspase-Activated DNase (CAD). CAD is normally inhibited by another protein, the Inhibitor of Caspase Activated DNase (ICAD). During apoptosis, the apoptotic effector caspase, caspase 3, cleaves ICAD and thus causes CAD to become activated.

CAD cleaves the DNA at the internucleosomal linker sites between the nucleosomes, protein-containing structures that occur in chromatin at ~180-bp intervals. This is because the DNA is normally tightly wrapped around histones, the core proteins of the nucleosomes. The linker sites are the only parts of the DNA strand that are exposed and thus accessible to CAD.

Degradation of nuclear DNA into nucleosomal units is one of the hallmarks of apoptotic cell death. It occurs in response to various apoptotic stimuli in a wide variety of cell types. Molecular characterization of this process identified a specific DNase (CAD, caspase-activated DNase) that cleaves chromosomal DNA in a caspase-dependent manner. CAD is synthesized with the help of ICAD (inhibitor of CAD), which works as a specific chaperone for CAD and is found complexed with ICAD in proliferating cells. When cells are induced to undergo apoptosis, caspases-in particular caspase 3-cleave ICAD to dissociate the CAD:ICAD complex, allowing CAD to cleave chromosomal DNA. Cells that lack ICAD or that express caspase-resistant mutant ICAD thus do not show DNA fragmentation during apoptosis, although they do exhibit some other features of apoptosis and die.

DNA fragmentation is a secondary consequence, rather than an integral cause, of apoptosis. Endonuclease involved might be similar to DNAse I, a potential indication that the DNA fragmentation might occur after the release of enzymes from cytoplasmic membrane lysis, an event that would potentially occur only after the final lytic event in the apoptotic sequence. More recently, data have shown that specific proteases residing in the cytoplasm mediate the terminal events of apoptosis, including those of nuclear morphology. Even so, the detection of DNA fragmentation and the presence of single strand ends of DNA have continued to be used in many studies to detect apoptotic cells, particularly in intact tissues, though necrosis also produces single-strand DNA ends in cell nuclei. Therefore, the interpretation of these in situ assays of DNA fragmentation [in situ nick-translation (ISNT); terminal transferase (TUNEL) must be carefully assessed together with morphological features of apoptotic cells.

Even though much work has been performed on the analysis of apoptotic events, little information is available to link the timing of morphological features at the cell surface and in the nucleus to the biochemical degradation of DNA in the same cells. Apoptosis can be initiated by a myriad of different mechanisms in different cell types, and the kinetics of these events vary widely, from only a few minutes to several days depending on the cell system.

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