Serum-free PC12 cell cultures have been used to study the mechanisms of neuronal death after neurotrophic factor deprivation. We previously reported that PC12 cells undergo "apoptotic" internucleosomal DNA cleavage after withdrawal of trophic support. Here, we have used a sensitive method to detect PC12 cell DNA fragmentation within three hrs of serum removal and have exploited this assay to examine several aspects regarding the mechanisms of neuronal survival/death. Major advantages of this assay are that it permits acute experiments to be performed well before other manifest signs of cell death and under conditions that cannot be applied chronically. We find that this apopotic DNA fragmentation is distinct from the random DNA degradation that occurs during necrotic death. Major observations include the following: (a) There is a good correlation between the ability of trophic substances to promote PC12 cell survival and to inhibit early DNA fragmentation. (b) Phorbol ester, an activator of PKC, acutely suppresses DNA fragmentation, but does not promote long-term survival or inhibition of endonuclease activity when applied chronically due to its downregulation of PKC. (c) Cells undergoing apoptosis within 3 h of serum withdrawal have a "commitment point" of only 1.0-1.5 h beyond which they can no longer be rescued by NGF. (d) Aurin, a non-carboxylic analog of the endonuclease inhibitor ATA, also inhibits DNA fragmentation and promotes short-term survival of PC12 cells. (e) Macromolecular synthesis is not required for DNA fragmentation or for NGF to prevent this event. (f) Extracellular Ca2+ is not required for internucleosomal DNA cleavage caused by serum withdrawal or for suppression of this by NGF. (g) DNA fragmentation can also be detected in cultures of rat sympathetic neurons as early as 10 h after removal of NGF. As in PC12 cell cultures, this precedes morphological signs of cell death.

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