Hybrid lethality expressed in the interspecific hybrid of Nicotiana suaveolens Lehm. x N. tabacum L. cv. Hicks-2 is one of the mechanisms for reproductive isolation and it is temperature-sensitive. Apoptotic changes were detected in the cells of hybrid seedlings and calli expressing lethality at 28 degrees C but not under high-temperature conditions (36 degrees C), when the lethality is suppressed. Condensation of chromatin, fragmentation of nuclei and cytoplasmic reduction are the cytological changes associated with apoptosis leading to hybrid lethality. Fragmentation of nuclei was correlated with the lethal symptoms in both hybrid seedlings and calli, as confirmed by fluorimetry of the nuclear DNA using laser scanning cytometry. Agarose gel analysis of DNA extracted from hybrid seedlings and calli showing lethal symptoms revealed a specific ladder pattern suggesting nucleosomal fragmentation which is one of the biochemical changes of apoptosis. In-situ detection using terminal deoxyribonucleotidyl transferase-mediated dUTP-fluorescein nick end labeling (TUNEL) showed that this process occurred in distinct stages on each organ of hybrid seedlings and centripetally in hybrid calli. From these results, we confirmed that cell death inducing hybrid lethality was indeed apoptosis.