The host-selective AAL toxins secreted by Alternaria alternata f sp lycopersici are primary chemical determinants in the Alternaria stem canker disease of tomato. The AAL toxins are members of a new class of sphinganine analog mycotoxins that cause cell death in both animals and plants. Here, we report detection of stereotypic hallmarks of apoptosis during cell death induced by these toxins in tomato. DNA ladders were observed during cell death in toxin-treated tomato protoplasts and leaflets. The intensity of the DNA ladders was enhanced by Ca2+ and inhibited by Zn2+. The progressive delineation of fragmented DNA into distinct bodies, coincident with the appearance of DNA ladders, also was observed during death of toxin-treated tomato protoplasts. In situ analysis of cells dying during development in both onion root caps and tomato leaf tracheary elements revealed DNA fragmentation localized to the dying cells as well as the additional formation of apoptotic-like bodies in sloughing root cap cells. We conclude that the fundamental elements of apoptosis, as characterized in animals, are conserved in plants. The apoptotic process may be expressed during some developmental transitions and is the functional process by which symptomatic lesions are formed in the Alternaria stem canker disease of tomato. Sphinganine analog mycotoxins may be used to characterize further signaling pathways leading to apoptosis in plants.
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