According to current understanding, several metabolic alterations form part of the common phase of the apoptosis process. Such alterations include a disruption of the mitochondrial transmembrane potential (delta psi(m)), a depletion of nonoxidized glutathione (GSH) levels, an increase in the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS), and an elevation in cytosolic free Ca2+ levels. Using a cytofluorometric approach, we have determined each of these parameters at the single cell level in thymocytes or T cell hybridoma cells undergoing apoptosis. Regardless of the apoptosis induction protocol (glucocorticoids, DNA damage, Fas cross-linking, or CD3epsilon cross-linking), cells manifest a near-to-simultaneous delta psi(m) dissipation and GSH depletion early during the apoptotic process. None of the protocols for apoptosis inhibition (antioxidants, delta psi(m) stabilization, Bcl-2 hyperexpression, or inhibition of IL-1-converting enzyme) allowed for the dissociation of delta psi(m) disruption and GSH depletion, indicating that both parameters are closely associated with each other. At a later stage of the apoptotic process, cells manifest a near-simultaneous increase in ROS production and intracellular Ca2+ levels. Whereas the thapsigargin- or ionophore-induced elevation of calcium levels has no immediate consequence on delta psi(m') cellular redox potentials, or ROS production, pro-oxidants and menadione, an inducer of mitochondrial superoxide anion generation, cause a rapid (15 min) Ca2+ elevation. Together, these data suggest a two-step model of the common phase of apoptosis. After an initial delta psi(m) dissipation linked to GSH depletion (step 1), cells hyperproduce ROS with an associated disruption of Ca2+ homeostasis (step 2).

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