We propose a new mechanism for sphingosine-induced apoptosis, involving relocation of lysosomal hydrolases to the cytosol. Owing to its lysosomotropic properties, sphingosine, which is also a detergent, especially when protonated, accumulates by proton trapping within the acidic vacuolar apparatus, where most of its action as a detergent would be exerted. When sphingosine was added in low-to-moderate concentrations to Jurkat and J774 cells, partial lysosomal rupture occurred dose-dependently, starting within a few minutes. This phenomenon preceded caspase activation, as well as changes of mitochondrial membrane potential. High sphingosine doses rapidly caused extensive lysosomal rupture and ensuing necrosis, without antecedent apoptosis or caspase activation. The sphingosine effect was prevented by pre-treatment with another, non-toxic, lysosomotropic base, ammonium chloride, at 10 mM. The lysosomal protease inhibitors, pepstatin A and epoxysuccinyl-L-leucylamido-3-methyl-butane ethyl ester ('E-64d'), inhibited markedly sphingosine-induced caspase activity to almost the same degree as the general caspase inhibitor benzyloxycarbonyl-Val-Ala-DL-Asp-fluoromethylketone ('Z-VAD-FMK'), although they did not by themselves inhibit caspases. We conclude that cathepsin D and one or more cysteine proteases, such as cathepsins B or L, are important mediators of sphingosine-induced apoptosis, working upstream of the caspase cascade and mitochondrial membrane-potential changes.