Denervated limbs of larval salamanders fail to regenerate if amputated and, unlike adult limbs, undergo regression. The cellular basis of the tissue loss is poorly understood. We used TUNEL staining of larval axolotl limbs fixed and sectioned at intervals after bilateral amputation and unilateral denervation to investigate the role of apoptosis during normal limb regeneration and denervated limb regression. In the first week after amputation a small percentage of apoptotic cells was found in both innervated and denervated limbs. During the second week the apoptotic index remained low in the mitotically active mesenchymal cells of the regenerating limbs, but increased twofold in the nondividing, dedifferentiated cells of the regressing limbs. TUNEL-positive cells resembling apoptotic bodies were restricted primarily to the dedifferentiated area beneath the wound epithelium, but were also present within the wound epithelium itself. Macrophages were identified immunohistochemically and were also found in increased numbers in distal areas of the denervated regressing limbs. The results suggest a role for apoptosis in the early phase of normal regeneration and indicate that denervated limb regression involves an increased rate of apoptosis and removal of apoptotic bodies by macrophages and the wound epithelium.
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