Caspases are crucial mediators of programmed cell death (apoptosis). Among them, caspase-3 is a frequently activated death protease, catalyzing the specific cleavage of many key cellular proteins. However, the specific requirements of this (or any other) caspase in apoptosis have remained largely unknown until now. Pathways to caspase-3 activation have been identified that are either dependent on or independent of mitochondrial cytochrome c release and caspase-9 function. Caspase-3 is essential for normal brain development and is important or essential in other apoptotic scenarios in a remarkable tissue-, cell type- or death stimulus-specific manner. Caspase-3 is also required for some typical hallmarks of apoptosis, and is indispensable for apoptotic chromatin condensation and DNA fragmentation in all cell types examined. Thus, caspase-3 is essential for certain processes associated with the dismantling of the cell and the formation of apoptotic bodies, but it may also function before or at the stage when commitment to loss of cell viability is made.