Selenium is an essential trace element and it is well known that selenium is necessary for cell culture. However, the mechanism underlying the role of selenium in cellular proliferation and survival is still unknown. The present study using Jurkat cells showed that selenium deficiency in a serum-free medium decreased the selenium-dependent enzyme activity (glutathione peroxidases and thioredoxin reductase) within cells and cell viability. To understand the mechanism of this effect of selenium, we examined the effect of other antioxidants, which act by different mechanisms. Vitamin E, a lipid-soluble radical-scavenging antioxidant, completely blocked selenium deficiency-induced cell death, although alpha-tocopherol (biologically the most active form of vitamin E) could not preserve selenium-dependent enzyme activity. Other antioxidants, such as different isoforms and derivatives of vitamin E, BO-653 and deferoxamine mesylate, also exerted an inhibitory effect. However, the water-soluble antioxidants, such as ascorbic acid, N-acetyl cysteine, and glutathione, displayed no such effect. Dichlorodihydrofluorescein (DCF) assay revealed that cellular reactive oxygen species (ROS) increased before cell death, and sodium selenite and alpha-tocopherol inhibited ROS increase in a dose-dependent manner. The generation of lipid hydroperoxides was observed by fluorescence probe diphenyl-1-pyrenylphosphine (DPPP) and HPLC chemiluminescence only in selenium-deficient cells. These results suggest that the ROS, especially lipid hydroperoxides, are involved in the cell death caused by selenium deficiency and that selenium and vitamin E cooperate in the defense against oxidative stress upon cells by detoxifying and inhibiting the formation of lipid hydroperoxides.