Cereal endosperm undergoes programmed cell death (PCD) during its development, a process that is controlled, in part, by ethylene. Whether other hormones influence endosperm PCD has not been investigated. Abscisic acid (ABA) plays an essential role during late seed development that enables an embryo to survive desiccation. To examine whether ABA is also involved in regulating the onset of PCD during endosperm development, we have used genetic and biochemical means to disrupt ABA biosynthesis or perception during maize kernel development. The onset and progression of cell death, as determined by viability staining and the appearance of internucleosomal DNA fragmentation, was accelerated in developing endosperm of ABA-insensitive vp1 and ABA-deficient vp9 mutants. Ethylene was synthesized in vp1 and vp9 mutant kernels at levels that were 2-4-fold higher than in wild-type kernels. Moreover, the increase and timing of ethylene production correlated with the premature onset and accelerated progression of internucleosomal fragmentation in these mutants. Treatment of developing wild-type endosperm with fluridone, an inhibitor of ABA biosynthesis, recapitulated the increase in ethylene production and accelerated execution of the PCD program that was observed in the ABA mutant kernels. These data suggest that a balance between ABA and ethylene establishes the appropriate onset and progression of programmed cell death during maize endosperm development.