Activation of the caspase proteases represents a central point in apoptosis. The requirement for spermine for the processes leading to caspase activation has been studied in transformed embryonic fibroblasts obtained from gyro (Gy) mutant male mice. These cells lack spermine synthase activity and thus provide a valuable model to study the role of spermine in cell processes. Gy fibroblasts do not contain spermine and have a higher spermidine content. However, when compared with fibroblasts obtained from normal male littermates (N cells), Gy fibroblasts were observed to grow normally. The lack of spermine did not affect the expression of Bcl-2, and caspases 3 and 9 were activated by etoposide in both N and Gy cells, indicating that spermine is dispensable for caspase activation. Spermine deficiency did not significantly influence caspase activity in cells treated with etoposide, cycloheximide or staurosporine, but sensitized the cells to UV irradiation, which triggered significantly higher caspase activity in Gy cells compared with N cells. α-Difluoromethylornithine (DFMO), an inhibitor of polyamine synthesis that is able to deplete cells of putrescine and spermidine, but usually does not influence spermine content, was able to produce a more complete polyamine depletion in Gy cells. This depletion, which included spermine deficiency, dramatically increased caspase activation and cell death in Gy fibroblasts exposed to UV irradiation. On the other hand, in either N or Gy cells, DFMO treatment did not influence caspase activity triggered by staurosporine, but inhibited it when the inducers were cycloheximide or etoposide. In Gy cells depleted of polyamines by DFMO, polyamine replenishment with either spermidine or spermine was sufficient to restore caspase activity induced by etoposide, indicating that, in this model, polyamines have an interchangeable role in supporting caspase activation. Therefore, spermine is not required for such activation, and the effect and specificity of polyamine depletion on caspase activity may be very different, depending on the role of polyamines in the specific death pathways engaged by different stimuli. Some inducers of apoptosis, for example etoposide, absolutely require polyamines for caspase activation, yet the lack of polyamines, particularly spermine, strongly increases caspase activation when induced by UV irradiation.

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