p38 mitogen-activated protein kinase is activated and involved in cleavage of caspase-3 during apoptosis induced by a number of stimuli. However, the signaling events triggered by p38 that result in caspase-3 activation are still unknown. In human leukemia cells, two reactive oxygen species, singlet oxygen and hydrogen peroxide (H(2)O(2)), selectively stimulated the phosphorylation of p38. Preincubation of cells with SB203580, a specific inhibitor of p38, dose dependently inhibited DNA fragmentation induced by singlet oxygen but not by H(2)O(2). Protection from apoptosis by SB203580 correlated with inhibition of caspase-3, and several events that are associated with caspase-3 activation, including Bid cleavage, decrease in mitochondrial transmembrane potential and release of cytochrome c from mitochondria, whereas caspase-8 cleavage was not affected by this inhibitor. In contrast, blockade of caspase-8 with Ile-Glu-Thr-Asp-fluoromethyl ketone is sufficient to prevent formation of DNA fragments and to inhibit all the above signaling events, with exception of p38 phosphorylation, in both singlet oxygen- and H(2)O(2)-treated cells. These data suggest that caspase-3 activation is regulated through redundant signaling pathways that involve p38 and caspase-8 acting upstream of Bid during singlet oxygen-induced apoptosis, whereas the activation of caspase-3 by H(2)O(2) is only governed by a caspase-8-mediated apoptotic pathway.