Among the seven caspases encoded in the fly genome, only dronc contains a caspase recruitment domain. To assess the function of this gene in development, we produced a null mutation in dronc. Animals lacking zygotic dronc are defective for programmed cell death (PCD) and arrest as early pupae. These mutants present a range of defects, including extensive hyperplasia of hematopoietic tissues, supernumerary neuronal cells, and head involution failure. dronc genetically interacts with the Ced4/Apaf1 counterpart, Dark, and adult structures lacking dronc are disrupted for fine patterning. Furthermore, in diverse models of metabolic injury, dronc- cells are completely insensitive to induction of cell killing. These findings establish dronc as an essential regulator of cell number in development and illustrate broad requirements for this apical caspase in adaptive responses during stress-induced apoptosis.