Infection with vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV), a rhabdovirus and economically significant animal pathogen, was previously demonstrated to induce apoptosis. The mechanism of induction and the role of apoptosis in the VSV-host response have not been completely elucidated. Previous data from our laboratory have suggested that caspase-3 is required for the induction of apoptosis but not viral replication in VSV-infected cells. However, these studies used inhibitors that are selective but not specific for caspase-3. To circumvent this difficulty, we infected both MCF-7 cells which do not express caspases-3 (null), and stable transfectants which express caspase-3 (C3+). When caspase-3 null cells were infected, significant PARP cleavage did not occur, but when C3+ cells were infected, PARP cleavage did occur efficiently. Studies in null and C3+ also suggest that: (1) caspases-3 and -7 are activated sequentially after VSV infection; (2) cell shrinkage and detachment are caspase-3 dependent, but cell rounding is not; and (3) the viral titers were similar between caspase-3 null and C3+ cells suggesting that activation of caspases-3 and -7 are not required for viral replication. Taken together, these results strongly support that the activation of caspase-3 by VSV infection is required for efficient apoptosis induction but not viral replication in vitro. Apoptosis mediated by caspase-3, then, is likely either a host cell response to viral replication or perhaps may be required for in vivo viral replication and spread.