Apoptosis is a form of programmed cell death (PCD) characterized by morphological changes and stereotypical DNA degradation described as a nucleosomal ;ladder'. However, nucleosomal ladders have only been clearly demonstrated in vertebrate tissues when large numbers of cells die in synchrony. Their absence may be explained by asynchronous death under physiological conditions, or by distinct molecular mechanisms. In this study, nucleosomal ladders were revealed by a ligation-mediated polymerase chain reaction (LMPCR), that amplifies DNA fragments with blunt, 5' phosphorylated ends. Numerous tissues from different organisms were examined which demonstrated that nucleosomal ladders (a) accompany physiological cell death in mammalian tissues where previously DNA fragmentation has not been detected; (b) are produced during invertebrate cell death; (c) are invariably generated via the production of blunt, 5' phosphorylated double strand breaks. These results suggest that PCD in multicellular organisms consistently involves apoptotic mechanisms and that the endonuclease activity is evolutionarily conserved.