Apoptosis was studied under conditions that mimic the steady state of H(2)O(2) in vivo. This is at variance with previous studies involving a bolus addition of H(2)O(2), a procedure that disrupts the cellular homeostasis. The results allowed us to define three phases for H(2)O(2)-induced apoptosis in Jurkat T-cells with reference to cytosolic steady state concentrations of H(2)O(2) [(H(2)O(2))(ss)]: (H(2)O(2))(ss) values below 0.7 microM elicited no effects; (H(2)O(2))(ss) approximately 0.7-3 microM induced apoptosis; and (H(2)O(2))(ss) > 3 microM yielded no additional apoptosis and a gradual shift towards necrosis as the mode of cell death were observed. H(2)O(2)-induced apoptosis was not affected by either BCNU, an inhibitor of glutathione reductase, or diamide, a compound that reacts both with low-molecular weight and protein thiols, or selenols. Glutathione depletion, accomplished by incubating cells either with buthionine sulfoximine or in cystine-free medium, rendered cells more sensitive to H(2)O(2)-induced apoptosis, but did not change the threshold and saturating concentrations of H(2)O(2) that induced apoptosis. Two unrelated metal chelators, desferrioxamine and dipyridyl, strongly protected against H(2)O(2)-induced apoptosis. It may be concluded that, under conditions of H(2)O(2) delivery that mimic in vivo situations, the oxidative event that triggers the induction of apoptosis by H(2)O(2) is a Fenton-type reaction and is independent of the thiol or selenium states of the cell.