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Nitrite accumulation in aquaculture systems is a potential risk factor that may trigger stress responses in aquatic organisms. However, the mechanisms regulating the responses of shrimp to nitrite stress remain unclear. In this study, full-length cDNA sequences of two apoptosis-related genes, caspase-3 and defender against apoptotic death (DAD-1), were cloned from Marsupenaeus japonicus for the first time, and their expression levels and tissue distribution were analyzed by quantitative real-time PCR (qRT-PCR). The full lengths of Mjcaspase-3 and MjDAD-1 were 1203 bp and 640 bp respectively, with deduced amino acid (AA) sequences of 321 and 114 AA. Mjcaspase-3 was predominantly expressed in haemocytes and weakly expressed in the seven other tissues tested. MjDAD-1 was mainly expressed in the defense and digestive tissues, especially in the hepatopancreas and hemocytes. To explore the influence of nitrite stress on the genetic response of antioxidant enzymes, immune-related genes and apoptosis-related proteins, the mRNA expression profiles of MjCAT, MjMnSOD, Mj-ilys, Mj-sty, Mjcaspase-3 and MjDAD-1 in response to nitrite stress were analyzed by qRT-PCR. The mRNA levels of MjCAT, MjMnSOD, Mj-ilys, Mj-sty, Mjcaspase-3 and MjDAD-1 show both time- and dose-dependent changes in response to nitrite stress. The mRNA expression levels of MjCAT and MjSOD peaked at 6 h for all nitrite concentrations tested (p < 0.05) and the up-regulated of MjCAT and MjSOD exhibited a positive correlation with the nitrite concentration. The mRNA expression levels of Mj-ilys and Mj-sty gradually decreased during the experiment period. Mjcaspase-3 mRNA level reached a maximum at 6 h (p < 0.05), and MjDAD-1 reached its peak at 12 h and 48 h in 10 mg/L and 20 mg/L nitrite, respectively. In addition, CAT and SOD activity showed changes in response to nitrite stress that mirrored the induced expression of MjCAT and MjMnSOD, and prolonged nitrite exposure reduced the activity of CAT. This study provided basic data for further elucidating the responses of shrimp to nitrite stress at the molecular level.Full-length cDNA sequences of two apoptosis-related proteins, caspase-3 and DAD-1 in M. japonicus were cloned and characterized for the first time.The tissue distribution of Mjcaspase-3 and MjDAD-1 was examined.The dose- and time-dependent effects of nitrite stress on the expression patterns of MjCAT, MjMnSOD, Mj-ilys, Mj-sty, Mjcaspase-3 and MjDAD-1 were elucidated.