PC12 cells undergo apoptosis when cultured under conditions of serum deprivation. In this situation, the activity of caspase-3-like proteinases was elevated, and the survival rate could be maintained by treatment with acetyl-DEVD-cho, a specific inhibitor of caspase-3. In a culture of PC12 cells treated with acetyl-DEVD-cho, where caspase-3-like proteinases are not activated, CA074, a specific inhibitor of cathepsin B induced active death of the cells. Cathepsin B antisense oligonucleotides showed a similar effect to CA074 on the induction of active cell death. By double staining of terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase-mediated deoxyuridine triphosphate-biotin nick end-labeling and activated caspase-3, the dying cells treated with CA074 were positive for terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase-mediated deoxyuridine triphosphate-biotin nick end-labeling staining but negative for activated caspase-3. Ultrastructurally, the cells were relatively large and had nuclei with chromatin condensation. The initiation of cell death by CA074 or the cathepsin B antisense were inhibited by the addition of pepstatin A, a lysosomal aspartic proteinase inhibitor, or by cathepsin D antisense. To examine whether this cell death pathway was present in cell types other than PC12 cells, we analysed dorsal root ganglion neurons obtained from rat embryos on the 15th gestational day, a time when they require nerve growth factor for survival and differentiation in culture. When cultured in the absence of nerve growth factor, the neurons survived in the presence of acetyl-DEVD-cho or acetyl-YVAD-cho. Under these conditions, CA074 reduced the survival rate of the neurons, which was subsequently restored by the further addition of pepstain A. These results suggest that a novel pathway for initiating cell death exists which is regulated by lysosomal cathepsins, and in which cathepsin D acts as a death factor. We speculate that this death-inducing activity is normally suppressed by cathepsin B.