Programmed cell death (apoptosis) occurs in nearly all cell types examined, including mammalian oocytes and embryos, where it may underlie some forms of infertility in humans. Although the molecular machinery participating in apoptosis have been intensely investigated, the accompanying physiological changes have not received similar attention. In this study, a novel electrophysiology technique has been employed to monitor real-time perturbations in the physiology of mouse embryos undergoing apoptosis evoked by hydrogen peroxide, diamide, and staurosporine. Despite differences in their mode of action, these agents evoked a similar early change in cellular physiology; namely, a pronounced, transient, potassium efflux through tetraethylammonium-sensitive potassium channels accompanied by cell shrinkage. Mouse zygotes exposed to 200 μM H2O2 exhibited potassium efflux that elevated the potassium concentration of the media surrounding embryos by 1.4 ± 0.1 μM. Pretreatment with tetraethylammonium inhibited this increase (0.2 ± 0.1 μM). Our results indicate that potassium efflux through potassium channels and concurrent cell shrinkage are early indicators of cell death in embryos and that noninvasive measurements of potassium pathophysiology may identify embryos undergoing cell death prior to the manifestation of other morphological or molecular hallmarks of cell death.
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