Cardiomyocyte apoptosis is present in many cardiac disease states, including heart failure and ischemic heart disease. Apoptosis is associated with the activation of caspases that mediate the cleavage of vital and structural proteins. However, the functional contribution of apoptosis to these conditions is not known. Furthermore, in cardiac myocytes, apoptosis may not be complete, allowing the cells to persist for a prolonged period within the myocardium. Therefore, we examined whether caspase-3 cleaved cardiac myofibrillar proteins and, if so, whether it affects contractile function. The effects of caspase-3 were studied in vitro on individual components of the cardiac myofilament including alpha-actin, alpha-actinin, myosin heavy chain, myosin light chain 1/2, tropomyosin, cardiac troponins (T, I, C), and the trimeric troponin complex. Exposure of the myofibrillar protein (listed above) to caspase-3 for 4 h resulted in the cleavage of alpha-actin and alpha-actinin, but not myosin heavy chain, myosin light chain 1/2, and tropomyosin, into three fragments (30, 20, and 15 kDa) and one major fragment (45 kDa), respectively. When cTnT, cTnI, and cTnC were incubated individually with caspase-3, there was no detectable cleavage. However, when the recombinant troponin complex was exposed to caspase-3, cTnT was cleaved, resulting in fragments of 25 kDa. Furthermore, rat cardiac myofilaments exposed to caspase-3 exhibited similar patterns of myofibrillar protein cleavage. Treatment with the caspase inhibitor DEVD-CHO or z-VAD-fmk abolished the cleavage. Myofilaments, isolated from adult rat ventricular myocytes after induction of apoptotic pathway by using beta-adrenergic stimulation, displayed a similar pattern of actin and TnT cleavage. Exposure of skinned fiber to caspase-3 decreased maximal Ca(2+)-activated force and myofibrillar ATPase activity. Our results indicate that caspase-3 cleaved myofibrillar proteins, resulting in an impaired force/Ca(2+) relationship and myofibrillar ATPase activity. Induction of apoptosis in cardiac cells was associated with similar cleavage of myofilaments. Therefore, activation of apoptotic pathways may lead to contractile dysfunction before cell death.