PCD (programmed cell death) in plants presents important morphological and biochemical differences compared with apoptosis in animal cells. This raises the question of whether PCD arose independently or from a common ancestor in plants and animals. In the present study we describe a cell-free system, using wheat grain nucellar cells undergoing PCD, to analyse nucleus dismantling, the final stage of PCD. We have identified a Ca2+/Mg2+ nuclease and a serine protease localized to the nucleus of dying nucellar cells. Nuclear extracts from nucellar cells undergoing PCD triggered DNA fragmentation and other apoptotic morphology in nuclei from different plant tissues. Inhibition of the serine protease did not affect DNA laddering. Furthermore, we show that the nuclear extracts from plant cells triggered DNA fragmentation and apoptotic morphology in nuclei from human cells. The inhibition of the nucleolytic activity with Zn2+ or EDTA blocked the morphological changes of the nucleus. Moreover, nuclear extracts from apoptotic human cells triggered DNA fragmentation and apoptotic morphology in nuclei from plant cells. These results show that degradation of the nucleus is morphologically and biochemically similar in plant and animal cells. The implication of this finding on the origin of PCD in plants and animals is discussed.

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