Analytical biochemistry

On the use of an appropriate TdT-mediated dUTP-biotin nick end labeling assay to identify apoptotic cells.

PMID 25862087


Apoptosis is an essential cellular mechanism involved in many processes such as embryogenesis, metamorphosis, and tissue homeostasis. DNA fragmentation is one of the key markers of this form of cell death. DNA fragmentation is executed by endogenous endonucleases such as caspase-activated DNase (CAD) in caspase-dependent apoptosis. The TUNEL (TdT-mediated dUTP-biotin nick end labeling) technique is the most widely used method to identify apoptotic cells in a tissue or culture and to assess drug toxicity. It is based on the detection of 3'-OH termini that are labeled with dUTP by the terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase. Although the test is very reliable and sensitive in caspase-dependent apoptosis, it is completely useless when cell death is mediated by pathways involving DNA degradation that generates 3'-P ends as in the LEI/L-DNase II pathway. Here, we propose a modification in the TUNEL protocol consisting of a dephosphorylation step prior to the TUNEL labeling. This allows the detection of both types of DNA breaks induced during apoptosis caspase-dependent and independent pathways, avoiding underestimating the cell death induced by the treatment of interest.