Programmed cell death during Drosophila embryogenesis

John M. Abrams, Kristin White, Liselotte I. Fessier, Hermann Steller

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

666 Scopus citations


The deliberate and orderly removal of cells by programmed cell death is a common phenomenon during the development of metazoan animals. We have examined the distribution and ultrastructural appearance of cell deaths that occur during embryogenesis in Drosophila melanogaster. A large number of cells die during embryonic development in Drosophila. These cells display ultrastructural features that resemble apoptosis observed in vertebrate systems, including nuclear condensation, fragmentation and engulfment by macrophages. Programmed cell deaths can be rapidly and reliably visualized in living wild-type and mutant Drosophila embryos using the vital dyes acridine orange or nile blue. Acridine orange appears to selectively stain apoptotic forms of death in these preparations, since cells undergoing necrotic deaths were not significantly labelled. Likewise, toluidine blue staining of fixed tissues resulted in highly specific labelling of apoptotic cells, indicating that apoptosis leads to specific biochemical changes responsible for the selective affinity to these dyes. Cell death begins at stage 11 (∼7 hours) of embryogenesis and thereafter becomes widespread, affecting many different tissues and regions of the embryo. Although the distribution of dying cells changes drastically over time, the overall pattern of cell death is highly reproducible for any given developmental stage. Detailed analysis of cell death in the central nervous system of stage 16 embryos (13-16 hours) revealed asymmetries in the exact number and position of dying cells on either side of the midline, suggesting that the decision to die may not be strictly predetermined at this stage. This work provides the basis for further molecular genetic studies on the control and execution of programmed cell death in Drosophila.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)29-43
Number of pages15
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1993


  • Apoptosis
  • Drosophila; embryogenesis
  • Macrophages
  • Nervous system development
  • Programmed cell death
  • Vital dyes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Molecular Biology
  • Developmental Biology


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