The Gram-negative bacterial pathogen Shigella flexneri causes dysentery by invading the human colonic mucosa. Bacteria are phagocytosed by enterocytes, escape from the phagosome into the cytoplasm and spread to adjacent cells. After crossing the epithelium, Shigella reaches the lamina propria of intestinal villi, the first line of defence. This tissue is densely populated with phagocytes that are killed in great numbers, resulting in abscesses. The genes required for cell invasion and macrophage killing are located on a 220-kilobase plasmid. We report here on the mechanism of cytotoxicity used by S. flexneri to kill macrophages. Each of four different strains was tested for its capacity to induce cell death. An invasive strain induced programmed cell death (apoptosis), whereas its non-invasive, plasmidcured isogenic strain was not toxic; neither was a mutant in ipa B (ref. 10) (invasion protein antigen), a gene necessary for entry. A non-invasive strain expressing the haemolysin operon of Escherichia coli induced accidental cell death (necrosis), demonstrating that other bacterial cytotoxic mechanisms do not lead to apoptosis. This is the first evidence that an invasive bacterial pathogen can induce suicide in its host cells.