One of the hallmark findings in patients suffering from SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) is lymphopenia, which is the result of massive lymphocyte death. SARS-CoV (SARS coronavirus), a novel coronavirus that has been etiologically associated with SARS cases, is homologous with MHV (murine hepatitis coronavirus), and MHV small envelope E protein is capable of inducing apoptosis. We hypothesized that SARS-CoV encodes a small envelope E protein that is homologous with MHV E protein, thus inducing T-cell apoptosis. To test this hypothesis, a cDNA encoding SARS-CoV E protein was created using whole gene synthesis. Our results showed that SARS-CoV E protein induced apoptosis in the transfected Jurkat T-cells, which was amplified to higher apoptosis rates in the absence of growth factors. However, apoptosis was inhibited by overexpressed antiapoptotic protein Bcl-xL. Moreover, we found that SARS-CoV E protein interacted with Bcl-xL in vitro and endogenous Bcl-xL in vivo and that Bcl-xL interaction with SARS-CoV E protein was mediated by BH3 (Bcl-2 homology domain 3) of Bcl-xL. Finally, we identified a novel BH3-like region located in the C-terminal cytosolic domain of SARS-CoV E protein, which mediates its binding to Bcl-xL. These results demonstrate, for the first time, a novel molecular mechanism of T-cell apoptosis that contributes to the SARS-CoV-induced lymphopenia observed in most SARS patients.