Apoptosis is likely to be the main form of beta-cell death in immune-mediated diabetes mellitus in rodents and possibly in humans. Clarification of the regulation of beta-cell death could indicate novel sites for therapeutic intervention in Type I (insulin-dependent) diabetes mellitus. We review the molecular effectors and signal transduction of immune-mediated beta-cell apoptosis. Data obtained on non-obese diabetic (NOD) mice suggest that macrophages and CD4+ T-cells are the main cellular effectors, whereas CD8+ T-cells are more important initiators of the immune process leading to beta-cell death. Perforin could be the effector molecule utilized by CD8+ T-cell initiation, whereas CD4+ mediated beta-cell destruction is mostly dependent on Fas/FasL and the cytokines IFNgamma and TNF-alpha. The macrophage cytokine IL-1beta in combination with IFN-gamma and TNF-alpha, plays an important role for beta-cell dysfunction and death. Signal transduction by these cytokines involves: (i) binding to specific receptors, (ii) signal transduction by cytosolic kinases (especially the so-called mitogen- and stress-activated protein kinases) and/or phosphatases, (iii) mobilization of diverse transcription factors - with nuclear factor kappaB (NF-kappaB), AP-1 and STAT-1 probably playing key roles for beta-cell apoptosis; (iv) up-regulation or down-regulation of gene transcription. Recent data obtained by microarray and proteomic analysis suggest that the process of beta-cell apoptosis depends on the parallel and/or sequential up-regulation and down-regulation of considerable numbers of genes, which can be grouped in gene modules or patterns according to their functions. A detailed characterization of these "gene modules", and of the signalling pathways and transcription factors regulating them could allow us to understand the ultimate mechanisms leading to beta-cell apoptosis.