Defective cytochrome c release and the resulting loss of caspase-3 activation was recently shown to be essential for the susceptibility of human melanoma cells to CD95/Fas-induced apoptosis. Cytochrome c release from mitochondria is regulated by the relative amounts of apoptosis-promoting and apoptosis-inhibiting Bcl-2 proteins in the outer membrane of these organelles. The assignment of Bax/Bcl-2 ratios by quantitative Western blotting in 11 melanoma cell populations revealed a relation to the susceptibility to CD95-mediated apoptosis. We could show that a low Bax/Bcl-2 ratio was characteristic for resistant cells and a high Bax/Bcl-2 ratio was characteristic for sensitive cells. Low Bax expression was not a consequence of mutations in the p53 coding sequence. The Bax/Bcl-2 ratio was also in clear correlation with sensitivity to another cell death inducer, N-acetylsphingosine. Furthermore, Bcl-2 overexpression abolished apoptosis triggered by both apoptotic stimuli, confirming the critical role of the Bax/Bcl-2 ratio as a rheostat that determines the susceptibility to apoptosis in melanoma cells by regulating mitochondrial function. Interestingly, some chemotherapeutics lead to the activation of death pathways by CD95L upregulation, ceramide generation, direct activation of upstream caspases, or upregulation of proapoptotic genes. Taken together, these signals enter the apoptotic pathway upstream of mitochondria, resulting in activation of this central checkpoint. We therefore assumed that apoptosis deficiency of malignant melanoma can be circumvented by drugs directly influencing mitochondrial functions. For this purpose we used betulinic acid, a cytotoxic agent selective for melanoma, straightly perturbing mitochondrial functions. In fact, betulinic acid induced mitochondrial cytochrome c release and DNA fragmentation in both CD95-resistant and CD95-sensitive melanoma cell populations, independent of the Bax/Bcl-2 ratio.