We have examined the hypothesis that neuronal programmed cell death requires a genetic program; we used a model wherein rat sympathetic neurons maintained in vitro are deprived of NGF and subsequently undergo apoptosis. To evaluate gene expression potentially necessary for this process, we used a PCR-based technique and in situ hybridization; patterns of general gene repression and selective gene induction were identified in NGF-deprived neurons. A temporal cascade of induced genes included "immediate early genes," which were remarkable in that their induction occurred hours after the initial stimulus of NGF removal and the synthesis of some required ongoing protein synthesis. The cascade also included the cell cycle gene c-myb and the genes encoding the extracellular matrix proteases transin and collagenase. Concurrent in situ hybridization and nuclear staining revealed that while c-jun was induced in most neurons, c-fos induction was restricted to neurons undergoing chromatin condensation, a hallmark of apoptosis. To evaluate the functional role of the proteins encoded by these genes, neutralizing antibodies were injected into neurons. Antibodies specific for either c-Jun or the Fos family (c-Fos, Fos B, Fra-1, and Fra-2) protected NGF-deprived neurons from apoptosis, whereas antibodies specific for Jun B, Jun D, or three nonimmune antibody preparations had no protective effect. Because these induced genes encode proteins ranging from a transcription factor necessary for death to proteases likely involved in tissue remodeling concurrent with death, these data may outline a genetic program responsible for neuronal programmed cell death.

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