It has been hypothesized that programmed cell death is mediated, in part, through the formation of free radicals via oxidative pathways. Furthermore, it has been proposed that BCL-2 acts to inhibit cell death by interfering with the production of oxygen-derived free radicals induced by a wide variety of stimuli. In order to examine the antioxidant function of BCL-2, we transfected mouse epidermal cells JB6 clone 41 with the expression vector pD5-Neo-BCL-2 and studied the effect of BCL-2 overexpression on oxidant-induced cell death and on the production of reactive oxygen species. Compared to Neo control cells, BCL-2-expressing cells are more resistant to the killing and growth retardation induced by hydrogen peroxide, superoxide, or by the oxygen radical-generating quinone-containing compounds menadione, diaziquone and adriamycin. The latter compounds generate reactive oxygen species during bioreductive metabolism. In addition, the exposed cells die by necrosis rather than apoptosis. Hydroxyl radical levels generated by the quinone-containing agents were low in BCL-2-expressing JB6 cells compared to control Neo cells. BCL-2, however, does not change the activities of the major cellular antioxidant enzymes superoxide dismutase, catalase or glutathione peroxidase. On the other hand, the glutathione concentrations increased in BCL-2 overexpressing cells after oxidative challenge, while the opposite was true for control cells. Thus, our results suggest that BCL-2 inhibition of oxidant-induced cell death is mediated, at least in part, through an antioxidant pathway, and that this pathway involves glutathione.