Apoptosis plays important roles in many facets of normal physiology in animal species, including programmed cell death associated with fetal development or metamorphosis, tissue homeostasis, immune cell education, and some aspects of aging. Defects in the regulation of apoptosis contribute to multiple diseases associated with either inappropriate cell loss or pathological cell accumulation. Host-pathogen interactions have additionally provided evolutionary pressure for apoptosis as a defense mechanism against viruses and microbes, sometimes linking apoptosis mechanisms with inflammatory responses. To a large extent, the apoptosis machinery can be viewed as a network, with different nodes connected by physical interactions of evolutionarily conserved domains. These domains can serve as signatures for identification of proteins involved in the network. In particular, the caspase recruitment domains (CARDs); death effector domains (DEDs); death domains (DDs); BIR (baculovirus IAP repeat) domains of inhibitor of apoptosis proteins (IAPs); Bcl-2 family proteins; caspase protease domains; and endonuclease-associated CIDE (cell death-inducing DFF45-like effector) domains are found in common in proteins involved in apoptosis. In the genomes of mammals, genes encoding proteins that carry one or more of these signature domains are often present in multiple copies, making up diverse gene families that permit tissue-specific and highly regulated control of cell life and death decisions through combinations of stimulus-specific gene expression and complex protein interaction networks. In this Review, we organize the repertoire of apoptosis proteins of humans into domain families, drawing comparisons with homologs in other vertebrate and invertebrate animal species, and discuss some of the functional implications of these findings.