It is often claimed that programmed cell death (pcd) exists in plants and that a form of pcd known as the hypersensitive response is triggered as a defense mechanism by microbial pathogens. However, in contrast to animals, no feature in plants universally identifies or defines pcd. We have looked for a hallmark of pcd in animal cells, namely, DNA cleavage, in plant cells killed by infection with incompatible fungi or by abiotic means. We found that cell death triggered in intact leaves of two resistant cowpea cultivars by the cowpea rust fungus is accompanied by the cleavage of nuclear DNA into oligonucleosomal fragments (DNA laddering). Terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase-mediated dUTP nick end in situ labeling of leaf sections showed that fungus-induced DNA cleavage occurred only in haustorium-containing cells and was detectable early in the degeneration process. Such cytologically detectable DNA cleavage was also observed in vascular tissue of infected and uninfected plants, but no DNA laddering was detected in the latter. DNA laddering was triggered by (greater than or equal to)100 mM KCN, regardless of cowpea cultivar, but not by physical cell disruption or by concentrations of H2O2, NaN3, CuSO4, or ZnCl2 that killed cowpea cells at a rate similar to that of ladder-inducing KCN concentrations. These and other results suggest that the hypersensitive response to microbial pathogens may involve a pcd with some of the characteristics of animal apoptosis and that DNA cleavage is a potential indicator of pcd in plants.
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