Vitamin A serves as a prohormone from which three classes of active metabolites are derived: the aldehydes, the carboxylic acids, and the retro-retinoids. Although these three classes are united under the rubric of signal transduction, they act by different molecular mechanisms: the 11-cis-retinaldehydes combine with opsin to form the universal visual pigments and the retinoic acids form ligands for transcription factors, whereas the retro-retinoids, as shown here, intersect with signal transduction at a cytoplasmic or membrane site. The retro-retinoid, anhydroretinol (AR), has long been known to act as a growth inhibitor in lymphocytes, whereas 14-hydroxy-4,14-retro-retinol (14-HRR) is required for normal lymphocyte proliferation. A mutually reversible relationship exists between these two retro-retinoids as one can reverse the effects of the other when given in pharmacological doses. The common explanation for reversible inhibition is competition for a shared receptor. We now provide evidence that when AR is given to T cells unmitigated by 14-HRR, rapid cell death can occur. The circumstances are closely related to nonclassical forms of apoptosis: within 2 h of AR administration the T cells undergo widespread morphological changes, notably surface blebbing and ballooning and, inevitably, bursting. In contrast, nuclear changes are comparatively mild, as indicated by absence of chromatin condensation and overt DNA cleavage to discrete nucleosomal fragments, although DNA nicks are readily discernible by terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase assay. What further distinguishes the AR-induced form of apoptosis from classical ones is a lack of requirements of messenger RNA and protein synthesis, suggesting that the events leading to cell death are primarily initiated and play themselves out in the cytoplasm. This view is further reinforced by the finding that herbimycin A can prevent the onset of programmed cell death. The importance of our findings is that they strongly suggest a second messenger role for vitamin A metabolites in the cytoplasmic realm that has not been seen previously. These findings are entirely compatible with a general notion that in a cell requiring multiple coordinated signals for survival, the provision of an unbalanced signal can initiate programmed cell death. Collectively, our data also challenge the paradigm that retinoids (outside vision) solely mediate their function via the steroid/ retinoic acid receptor family of nuclear transcription factors. Instead, a mode of action in the cytoplasmic realm akin to one attributed to other small lipophilic second messenger molecules, such as diacyl glycerol or ceramide, may apply to retro-retinoids.

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