The Helicobacter pylori vacuolating cytotoxin (VacA) intoxicates mammalian cells resulting in reduction of mitochondrial transmembrane potential (Delta Psi m reduction) and cytochrome c release, two events consistent with the modulation of mitochondrial membrane permeability. We now demonstrate that the entry of VacA into cells and the capacity of VacA to form anion-selective channels are both essential for Delta Psi m reduction and cytochrome c release. Subsequent to cell entry, a substantial fraction of VacA localizes to the mitochondria. Neither Delta Psi m reduction nor cytochrome c release within VacA-intoxicated cells requires cellular caspase activity. Moreover, VacA cellular activity is not sensitive to cyclosporin A, suggesting that VacA does not induce the mitochondrial permeability transition as a mechanism for Delta Psi m reduction and cytochrome c release. Time-course and dose-response studies indicate that Delta Psi m reduction occurs substantially before and at lower concentrations of VacA than cytochrome c release. Collectively, these results support a model that VacA enters mammalian cells, localizes to the mitochondria, and modulates mitochondrial membrane permeability by a mechanism dependent on toxin channel activity ultimately resulting in cytochrome c release. This model represents a novel mechanism for regulation of a mitochondrial-dependent apoptosis pathway by a bacterial toxin.