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Chromatin condensation paralleled by DNA fragmentation is one of the most important criteria which are used to identify apoptotic cells. However, comparable changes are also observed in interphase nuclei which have been treated with cell extracts from mitotic cells. In this respect it is known that in mitosis, the lamina structure is broken down as a result of lamin solubilization and it is possible that a similar process is happening in apoptotic cells. The experiments described in this study have used confluent cultures of an embryonic fibroblast cell line which can be induced to undergo either apoptosis at low serum conditions or mitosis. Solubilization of lamin A+B was analyzed by immunoblotting and indirect immunofluorescence. These studies showed that in mitotic cells lamina breakdown is accompanied by lamin solubilization. In apoptotic cells, a small amount of lamin is solubilized before the onset of apoptosis, thereafter, chromatin condensation is accompanied by degradation of lamin A+B to a 46-kD fragment. Analysis of cellular lysates by probing blots with anti- PSTAIR followed by anti-phosphotyrosine showed that in contrast to mitosis, dephosphorylation on tyrosine residues did not occur in apoptotic cells. At all timepoints after the onset of apoptosis there was no significant increase in the activation of p34cdc2 as determined in the histone H1 kinase assay. Coinduction of apoptosis and mitosis after release of cells from aphidicolin block showed that apoptosis could be induced in parallel with S-phase. The sudden breakdown of chromatin structure may be the result of detachment of the chromatin loops from their anchorage at the nuclear matrix, as bands of 50 kbp and corresponding multimers were detectable by field inversion gel electrophoresis (FIGE). In apoptotic cells all of the DNA was fragmented, but only 14% of the DNA was smaller than 50 kbp. DNA strand breaks were detected at the periphery of the condensed chromatin by in situ tailing (ISTAIL). Chromatin condensation during apoptosis appears to be due to a rapid proteolysis of nuclear matrix proteins which does not involve the p34cdc2 kinase.