In quiescent thymocytes, mitochondrial de-energization was not correlated to apoptotic death. In fact, thymocytes treated with oligomycin, a highly specific inhibitor of ATP synthase, alone or with atractyloside to block ATP translocation from the cytoplasm, were alive, even if their mitochondria were depolarized, as revealed by flow cytometry after Rhodamine 123 staining. Furthermore, oligomycin was a powerful inhibitor of apoptosis induced in rat thymocytes by dexamethasone and, to a lesser extent, by the calcium ionophore A23187 and etoposide, but was without effect when apoptosis was induced by staurosporine, and increased cell death in mitogen-treated thymocytes. The inhibition of apoptosis was confirmed by morphological criteria, inhibition of inter-nucleosomal DNA fragmentation and inhibition of the loss of membrane integrity. The anti-apoptotic effect of oligomycin in cells treated with A23187 or etoposide was correlated to the inhibition of protein synthesis, while inhibition of apoptosis induced by dexamethasone, already evident at an oligomycin concentration of 10 ng/ml, was instead strictly correlated to the effect exerted on the cellular ATP level. Thymocyte apoptosis triggered by dexamethasone was blocked or delayed by inhibitors of respiratory-chain uncouplers, inhibitors of ATP synthase and antioxidants: a lasting protection from dexamethasone-induced apoptosis was always correlated to a drastic and rapid reduction in ATP level (31–35% of control), while a delay in the death process was characterized by a moderate decrease in ATP (73–82% of control). Oligomycin inhibited the specific binding of radioactive corticosteroid to thymocyte nuclei, confirming the inhibitory effect of ATP depletion on glucocorticoid binding and suggesting that ATP depletion is a common mediator of the anti-apoptotic action of different effectors in glucocorticoid-induced apoptosis. In conclusion, the reported data indicate that ATP may act as a cellular modulator of some forms of apoptosis, depending on the death trigger, and that in quiescent cells the de-energization of mitochondria is not necessarily linked to apoptosis.

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