Isolated rat-liver nuclei were incubated with a series of membrane-permeable metal-ion-complexing agents and examined for DNA damage. Of the reagents tested, only 1,10-phenanthroline (OP) and neocuproine (NC) were found to induce DNA fragmentation. Agarose-gel electrophoresis of the DNA fragments generated in the presence of OP revealed internucleosomal cleavage, which is widely considered to be a hallmark for the enzymic DNA digestion that occurs during apoptosis. Ascorbate, particularly in the presence of hydrogen peroxide, increased the levels of fragmentation induced by OP. As well as undergoing fragmentation, the DNA from nuclei was also found to contain 8-hydroxydeoxyguanosine, which indicates attack (oxidation) by the hydroxyl radical. Complementary experiments in vitro involving ESR determinations of hydroxyl radical formation and measurements of DNA oxidation under biomimetic conditions demonstrated that Cu2+, but not Fe3+, forms a complex with either OP or NC (but not the other complexing agents tested) that stimulates hydroxyl radical formation and DNA damage in the presence of hydrogen peroxide and ascorbate. It is therefore proposed that OP in the nuclei incubations binds to Cu2+, which exists naturally in chromosomes, forming a complex that promotes hydroxyl-radical-dependent DNA fragmentation. These findings demonstrate the promotion of hydroxyl-radical-mediated DNA damage by endogenous Cu2+ and, perhaps more significantly, demonstrate that the internucleosomal DNA ‘laddering’ that is often used as an indicator of apoptosis may also result from DNA fragmentation by non-enzymic processes.

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Author notes

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Present address: Universität Konstanz, Fakultät für Biologie, Postfach 5560 X911, D-78434 Konstanz, Germany.