The Caenorhabditis elegans nuc-1 gene has previously been implicated in programmed cell death due to the presence of persistent undegraded apoptotic DNA in nuc-1 mutant animals. In this report, we describe the cloning and characterization of nuc-1, which encodes an acidic nuclease with significant sequence similarity to mammalian DNase II. Database searches performed with human DNase II protein sequence revealed a significant similarity with the predicted C. elegans C07B5.5 ORF. Subsequent analysis of crude C. elegans protein extracts revealed that wild-type animals contained a potent endonuclease activity with a cleavage preference similar to DNase II, while nuc-1 mutant worms demonstrated a marked reduction in this nuclease activity. Sequence analysis of C07B5.5 DNA and mRNA also revealed that nuc-1(e1392), but not wild-type animals contained a nonsense mutation within the CO7B5.5 coding region. Furthermore, nuc-1 transgenic lines carrying the wild-type C07B5.5 locus demonstrated a complete complementation of the nuc-1 mutant phenotype. Our results therefore provide compelling evidence that the C07B5.5 gene encodes the NUC-1 apoptotic nuclease and that this nuclease is related in sequence and activity to DNase II.