Recent studies suggest that increased lymphocyte apoptosis (Ao) detected in peripheral blood T cells from burn patients appears to contribute to decreased lymphocyte immunoresponsiveness. However, while it is known that sepsis induces a marked depression in the splenocyte immune response (i.e. decreased interleukin-2, interferon-gamma production and proliferation) in response to the T-cell mitogen concanavalin A (Con A), it is unknown whether this depression is associated with an increase in inducible Ao and if so, which mediators control this process. To assess this, splenocytes were harvested from mice at 24 hr (a period associated with decreased Con A response) after the onset of polymicrobial sepsis [caecal ligation and puncture (CLP)] or sham-CLP (Sham) and then stimulated with 2.5 microg Con A/ml (24 hr). Septic mouse splenocytes stimulated with Con A, while not showing a change in their phenotypic make-up, did exhibit a marked increase in the percentage of splenocyte that were Ao+ which was associated with altered cytokine release. This appears to be due to an increase in the percentage of Ao+ cells in the CD4+ CD8- population and was associated with enhanced Fas antigen expression as well as an increase in mRNA for the Fas-FasL gene family. To determine if the changes in Ao are due to either endotoxin (a product of Gram-negative bacteria seen in CLP mice) or the expression of Fas ligand (FasL; a mediator of activation-induced lymphocyte Ao), a second set of studies examining Con A-inducible Ao was performed with splenocytes harvested from septic endotoxin-tolerant C3H/HeJ and the FasL-deficient C3H/HeJ-Fasl gld mice. The results show that increased splenocyte Ao detected following CLP is due to a FasL-mediated process and not to endotoxin. Thus the inadvertent up-regulation of FasL-mediated splenocyte Ao may contribute to the depression of splenocyte immune responses seen during polymicrobial sepsis.