Programmed nuclear death (PND) in the ciliate protozoan Tetrahymena thermophila is a novel type of autophagy that occurs during conjugation, in which only the parental somatic macronucleus is destined to die and is then eliminated from the progeny cytoplasm. Other coexisting nuclei, however, such as new micro- and macronuclei are unaffected. PND starts with condensation in the nucleus followed by apoptotic DNA fragmentation, lysosomal acidification, and final resorption. Because of the peculiarity in the process and the absence of some ATG genes in this organism, the mechanism of PND has remained unclear. In this study, we focus on the role of class III phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase (PtdIns3K, corresponding to yeast Vps34) in order to identify central regulators of PND. We identified the sole Tetrahymena thermophila ortholog (TtVPS34) to yeast Vps34 and human PIK3C3 (the catalytic subunit of PtdIns3K), through phylogenetic analysis, and generated the gene knockdown mutant for functional analysis. Loss of TtVPS34 activity prevents autophagosome formation on the parental macronucleus, and this nucleus escapes from the lysosomal pathway. In turn, DNA fragmentation and final resorption of the nucleus are drastically impaired. These phenotypes are similar to the situation in the ATG8Δ mutants of Tetrahymena, implying an inextricable link between TtVPS34 and TtATG8s in controlling PND as well as general macroautophagy. On the other hand, TtVPS34 does not appear responsible for the nuclear condensation and does not affect the progeny nuclear development. These results demonstrate that TtVPS34 is critically involved in the nuclear degradation events of PND in autophagosome formation rather than with an involvement in commitment to the death program.
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