The protein toxins ricin, abrin, Shiga toxin, and diphtheria toxin were found to induce lysis of several cell lines in a manner characteristic for programmed cell death or apoptosis. The toxins induced DNA degradation, and light and electron microscopical studies revealed that lysis was preceded by reorganization of intracellular vacuoles, cell blebbing, and chromatin condensation both in Vero and in MDCK cells. Cell lysis was efficiently inhibited by cycloheximide and 3-methyladenine (3MA), a specific inhibitor of autophagy. Cycloheximide, which like 3MA inhibits autophagy, protected even when added at a time when the protein synthesis had been blocked by ricin, suggesting that the effect of cycloheximide on cell lysis is independent of its ability to inhibit protein synthesis. Also theophylline and dibutyryl-cGMP had some protective effect, whereas a number of compounds reported to protect against apoptosis in other systems were without protective effects. The data suggest that autophagy is important for the toxin-induced cell lysis.