The ability of Legionella pneumophila to cause legionnaires' disease is dependent on its capacity to replicate within cells in the alveolar spaces. The bacteria kill mammalian cells in two phases: induction of apoptosis during the early stages of infection, followed by an independent and rapid necrosis during later stages of the infection, mediated by a pore-forming activity. In the environment, L. pneumophila is a parasite of protozoa. The molecular mechanisms by which L. pneumophila kills the protozoan cells, after their exploitation for intracellular proliferation, are not known. In an effort to decipher these mechanisms, we have examined induction of both apoptosis and necrosis in the protozoan Acanthamoeba polyphaga upon infection by L. pneumophila. Our data show that, although A. polyphaga undergoes apoptosis following treatment with actinomycin D, L. pneumophila does not induce apoptosis in these cells. Instead, intracellular L. pneumophila induces necrotic death in A. polyphaga, which is mediated by the pore-forming activity. Mutants of L. pneumophila defective in expression of the pore-forming activity are indistinguishable from the parental strain in intracellular replication within A. polyphaga. The parental strain bacteria cause necrosis-mediated lysis of all the A. polyphaga cells within 48 h after infection, and all the intracellular bacteria are released into the tissue culture medium. In contrast, all cells infected by the mutants remain intact, and the intracellular bacteria are 'trapped' within A. polyphaga after the termination of intracellular replication. Failure to exit the host cell after termination of intracellular replication results in a gradual decline in the viability of the mutant strain bacteria within A. polyphaga starting 48h after infection. Our data show that the pore-forming activity of L. pneumophila is not required for intracellular bacterial replication within A. polyphaga but is required for killing and exiting the protozoan host upon termination of intracellular replication.