Photoassimilates such as sugars are transported through phloem sieve element cells in plants. Adapted for effective transport, sieve elements develop as enucleated living cells. We used electron microscope imaging and 3D reconstruction to follow sieve element morphogenesis in Arabidopsis. We show that sieve element differentiation involves enucleation in which the nuclear contents are released and degraded in the cytoplasm at the same time as other organelles are rearranged and the cytosol is degraded. These cellular reorganizations are orchestrated by the genetically redundant NAC domain-containing transcription factors, NAC45 and NAC86. Among the NAC45/86 targets, we identified a family of genes required for enucleation that encode proteins with nuclease domains. Thus, sieve elements differentiate through a specialized autolysis mechanism.