Replication-deficient adenoviruses are among the most widely used vectors in gene therapy and are also becoming increasingly popular as analytical tools in basic research. However, significant toxicity of these vectors in vivo has been reported. Here, we show that in an in vitro setting, first generation adenoviruses lead to growth retardation, prolongation of the G2/M phase and induction of apoptosis if applied at a high multiplicity of infection (MOI). These findings were obtained in p53-deficient hepatocytes, derived from knock-out mice (A2 cells) and in several tumor cell lines containing wild-type (wt) or mutant p53. Apoptosis induction was correlated with increased levels of p53 and bax proteins and it was stronger in cells containing wt p53 as compared with cells lacking functional p53. Apoptosis was highly dependent on the MOI used with marked effects starting at an MOI twice as high as needed for 100% gene transfer. Expression of the adenoviral E4 ORF6 gene as well as adenoviral replication were detected in all cell lines infected with first generation adenovirus. Apoptosis could be considerably reduced but not abrogated by UV inactivation of adenovirus, which indicates proapoptotic effects caused by the infection event as well as by residual adenoviral gene expression or adenoviral replication. First generation adenoviruses apparently display proapoptotic activity if used at higher MOIs, which may be of relevance when these vectors are used as analytical or gene therapeutic tools.