Alpha-sarcin is a ribosome-inactivating protein that has been well characterized in vitro, but little is known about its toxicity in living cells. We have analyzed the mechanism of internalization of alpha-sarcin into human rhabdomyosarcoma cells and the cellular events that result in the induction of cell death. No specific cell surface receptor for alpha-sarcin has been found. The toxin is internalized via endocytosis involving acidic endosomes and the Golgi, as deduced from the ATP requirement and the effects of NH4Cl, monensin and nigericin on its cytotoxicity. Specific cleavage of 28S rRNA in cultured rhabdomyosarcoma cells, associated with protein biosynthesis inhibition, has been detected. alpha-Sarcin kills rhabdomyosarcoma cells via apoptosis: incubation of cells with alpha-sarcin at a concentration below its IC50 induces internucleosomal genomic DNA fragmentation, reversion of membrane asymmetry, activation of caspase-3-like activity and cleavage of poly(ADP-ribose)polymerase. Apoptosis is not a general direct consequence of protein biosynthesis inhibition, as deduced from the comparative analysis of the effects of alpha-sarcin and cycloheximide; the latter does not induce apoptosis even at concentrations far beyond its IC50, where protein biosynthesis is null. Experiments with a catalytically inactive alpha-sarcin mutant, neither toxic nor apoptotic, reveal that induced apoptosis is directly related to the effects of catalytic activity of the toxin on the ribosomes. The caspase inhibitor z-VAD-fmk does not suppress protein synthesis inhibition by alpha-sarcin. Together, these data suggest that alpha-sarcin-induced caspase activation is a pathway downstream of the 28S rRNA catalytic cleavage and consequent protein biosynthesis inhibition.