A gene, reaper (rpr), that appears to play a central control function for the initiation of programmed cell death (apoptosis) in Drosophila was identified. Virtually all programmed cell death that normally occurs during Drosophila embryogenesis was blocked in embryos homozygous for a small deletion that includes the reaper gene. Mutant embryos contained many extra cells and failed to hatch, but many other aspects of development appeared quite normal. Deletions that include reaper also protected embryos from apoptosis caused by x-irradiation and developmental defects. However, high doses of x-rays induced some apoptosis in mutant embryos, and the resulting corpses were phagocytosed by macrophages. These data suggest that the basic cell death program is intact although it was not activated in mutant embryos. The DNA encompassed by the deletion was cloned and the reaper gene was identified on the basis of the ability of cloned DNA to restore apoptosis to cell death defective embryos in germ line transformation experiments. The reaper gene appears to encode a small peptide that shows no homology to known proteins, and reaper messenger RNA is expressed in cells destined to undergo apoptosis.
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