Department of Anatomy, Embryology and Histology Section Histology, University of Gent, Pasteurlaan 2, B 9000 Gent, Belgium; e-mail: henk.louagie@rug.ac.be


One of the early events occurring at the cell membrane during apoptosis is the translocation of phosphatidylserine from the inner side of the plasma membrane to the outer layer. These phosphatidylserine groups can be bound by fluorescein isothiocyanate (FITC)-labelled annexin V. The aim of this study was to evaluate the power of the annexin V flow cytometric assay in detecting apoptosis in γ irradiated peripheral blood lymphocytes and in differentiating between apoptosis and primary necrosis in these cells. Therefore, 5Gy and 20Gy γ irradiated peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) were examined after a 24-h culture period. The terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase-mediated dUTP—biotin nick end labeling (TUNEL) technique was performed as well. A comparison with an electron microscopic (EM) evaluation was made. EM is based on established morphological criteria allowing the classification of cells into four groups: viable, early apoptotic, secondary necrotic and primary necrotic cells. EM performed on annexin V positive sorted cells proved that a 5Gy γ irradiation of PBMCs mainly causes apoptosis, whereas a 20Gy γ irradiation mainly induces primary necrosis. Neither the annexin V flow cytometric assay nor the TUNEL assay were able to distinguish between primary and secondary necrotic cells. These results illustrate that if quantification of apoptosis is required, one should be careful in interpreting flow cytometric results obtained by annexin V or TUNEL staining in peripheral blood lymphocytes. Although in general primary necrotic cells show an increased forward scatter due to cellullar swelling, both early apoptotic and necrotic (primary or secondary) lymphocytes show a decreased forward scatter signal. Moreover, both primary and secondary necrotic lymphocytes are annexin V and propidium iodide (PI) positive and therefore indistinguishable. We conclude that if a new experiment focusing on apoptosis is set up, an initial EM evaluation is mandatory. If EM shows that the apoptosis inducing agent used in the design of the experiments is not causing primary necrosis, than the annexin V flow cytometric assay can provide rapid and quantitative information about apoptosis.