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Vital imaging of H9c2 myoblasts exposed to tert-butylhydroperoxide – characterization of morphological features of cell death

Vilma A Sardão1*, Paulo J Oliveira1, Jon Holy2, Catarina R Oliveira1 and Kendall B Wallace3

Author affiliations

1 Center for Neurosciences and Cellular Biology, University of Coimbra, Coimbra, Portugal

2 Department of Anatomy, Microbiology and Pathology, University of Minnesota-Medical School, Duluth, USA

3 Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, University of Minnesota-Medical Medical School, Duluth, USA

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Citation and License

BMC Cell Biology 2007, 8:11  doi:10.1186/1471-2121-8-11

Published: 16 March 2007



When exposed to oxidative conditions, cells suffer not only biochemical alterations, but also morphologic changes. Oxidative stress is a condition induced by some pro-oxidant compounds, such as by tert-butylhydroperoxide (tBHP) and can also be induced in vivo by ischemia/reperfusion conditions, which is very common in cardiac tissue. The cell line H9c2 has been used as an in vitro cellular model for both skeletal and cardiac muscle. Understanding how these cells respond to oxidative agents may furnish novel insights into how cardiac and skeletal tissues respond to oxidative stress conditions. The objective of this work was to characterize, through vital imaging, morphological alterations and the appearance of apoptotic hallmarks, with a special focus on mitochondrial changes, upon exposure of H9c2 cells to tBHP.


When exposed to tBHP, an increase in intracellular oxidative stress was detected in H9c2 cells by epifluorescence microscopy, which was accompanied by an increase in cell death that was prevented by the antioxidants Trolox and N-acetylcysteine. Several morphological alterations characteristic of apoptosis were noted, including changes in nuclear morphology, translocation of phosphatidylserine to the outer leaflet of the cell membrane, and cell blebbing. An increase in the exposure period or in tBHP concentration resulted in a clear loss of membrane integrity, which is characteristic of necrosis. Changes in mitochondrial morphology, consisting of a transition from long filaments to small and round fragments, were also detected in H9c2 cells after treatment with tBHP. Bax aggregates near mitochondrial networks were formed after short periods of incubation.


Vital imaging of alterations in cell morphology is a useful method to characterize cellular responses to oxidative stress. In the present work, we report two distinct patterns of morphological alterations in H9c2 cells exposed to tBHP, a pro-oxidant agent frequently used as model to induce oxidative stress. In particular, dynamic changes in mitochondrial networks could be visualized, which appear to be centrally involved in how these cells respond to oxidative stress. The data also indicate that the cause of H9c2 cell death following tBHP exposure is increased intracellular oxidative stress.