Ultraviolet irradiation is a major environmental cause of skin cancers, whereas ultraviolet-induced DNA repair and apoptosis are defense mechanisms that rescue and/or protect keratinocytes from this risk. Multiple pathways are involved in ultraviolet-induced keratinocyte apoptosis, including activation of p38-mitogen-activated protein kinase, protein kinase C, and CD95, each of which are associated with caspase activation. Alternatively, ceramides could serve as ultraviolet-induced, second messenger lipids, because they induce cell cycle arrest and apoptosis in a variety of cell types, including keratinocytes. We investigated the role of ceramide versus caspase, and the responsible pathway for ceramide generation in ultraviolet B-induced apoptosis of cultured normal human keratinocytes maintained in low calcium (0.07 mm) medium. Ultraviolet B (40 mJ per cm2) significantly inhibited cultured normal human keratinocyte proliferation, assessed as [3H-methyl]thymidine-thymidine incorporation into DNA, 2 h after irradiation. Terminal nick deoxynucleotide end-labeling-positive apoptotic cells (14.8% at 24 h and 34.4% at 48 h) and trypan blue-positive apoptotic cells (8.4% at 24 h and 28.6% at 48 h) became evident in a time-dependent manner after ultraviolet B irradiation, in parallel with activation of caspase-3. The ceramide content of irradiated cultured normal human keratinocytes increased significantly by 8 h, whereas glucosylceramide only modestly increased, and sphingomyelin content remained unaltered. Metabolic studies with radiolabeled serine, palmitic acid, and phosphorylcholine revealed that the ultraviolet B-induced increase in ceramide results primarily from increased de novo synthesis rather than accelerated sphingomyelin hydrolysis. Increased ceramide synthesis, in turn, could be attributed to increased activity of ceramide synthase (i.e., 1.7-fold increase 8 h after ultraviolet B irradiation), whereas serine palmitoyltransferase activity did not change. Both fumonisin B1, an inhibitor of ceramide synthase, and ISP-1, myriocin an inhibitor of serine palmitoyltransferase, significantly attenuated the ultraviolet B-induced apoptosis in a caspase-3-independent fashion, whereas co-incubation with a caspase-3 inhibitor (Ac-DEVD-chloromethyl-ketone) further attenuated the ultraviolet B-induced apoptosis. Thus, increased de novo ceramide synthesis signals ultraviolet B-induced apoptosis, by a pathway independent of, but in concert with, caspase-3 activation.