Caspases, a unique family of cysteine proteases, execute programmed cell death (apoptosis). Caspases exist as inactive zymogens in cells and undergo a cascade of catalytic activation at the onset of apoptosis. The activated caspases are subject to inhibition by the inhibitor-of-apoptosis (IAP) family of proteins. This inhibition can be effectively removed by diverse proteins that share an IAP-binding tetrapeptide motif. Recent structural and biochemical studies have revealed the underlying molecular mechanisms for these processes in mammals and in Drosophila. This paper reviews these latest advances.