Serum-free mouse embryo (SFME) cells, derived in medium in which serum is replaced with growth factors and other supplements, are proastroblasts that are acutely dependent on epidermal growth factor (EGF) for survival. Ultrastructurally, an early change found in SFME cells deprived of EGF was a loss of polysomes which sedimentation analysis confirmed to be a shift from polysomes to monosomes. The ribosomal shift was not accompanied by decreased steady-state level of cytoplasmic actin mRNA examined as an indicator of cellular mRNA level. With time the cells became small and severely degenerate and exhibited nuclear morphology characteristic of apoptosis. Genomic DNA isolated from cultures undergoing EGF deprivation-dependent cell death exhibited a pattern of fragmentation resulting from endonuclease activation characteristic of cells undergoing apoptosis or programmed cell death. Flow cytometric analysis indicated that cultures in the absence of EGF contained almost exclusively G1-phase cells. Some of the phenomena associated with EGF deprivation of SFME cells are similar to those observed upon NGF deprivation of nerve cells in culture, suggesting that these neuroectodermal-derived cell types share common mechanisms of proliferative control involving peptide growth factor-dependent survival.

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