The recombinant form of the proapoptotic caspase-9 purified following expression in Escherichia coli is processed at Asp315, but largely inactive; however, when added to cytosolic extracts of human 293 cells it is activated 2000-fold in the presence of cytochrome c and dATP. Thus, the characteristic activities of caspase-9 are context-dependent, and its activation may not recapitulate conventional caspase activation mechanisms. To explore this hypothesis we produced recombinant forms of procaspase-9 containing mutations that disabled one or both of the interdomain processing sites of the zymogen. These mutants were able to activate downstream caspases, but only in the presence of cytosolic factors. The mutant with both processing sites abolished had 10% of the activity of wild-type, and was able to support apoptosis, with equal vigor to wild-type, when transiently expressed in 293 cells. Thus caspase-9 has an unusually active zymogen that does not require proteolytic processing, but instead is dependent on cytosolic factors for expression of its activity.