Two ionophores specific for K+, valinomycin and beauvericin, induce a type of cell death very similar to apoptosis due to tumor necrosis factor (TNF alpha). Both ionophores cause cytolysis accompanied by internucleosomal DNA fragmentation of the dying cell into units of 200 base pairs. Morphologically, the cell death appears to consist of a mixture of nuclear apoptotic changes and cytoplasmic necrotic changes. As in the case for TNF alpha-mediated death, metabolic inhibitors have no effect on the course of cell death, but DNA fragmentation and cytolysis are decreased by the endonuclease inhibitor, zinc. Beauvericin and valinomycin trigger an increase in the cytoplasmic calcium concentration, most likely due to release of calcium from intracellular stores, and chelation of cytoplasmic calcium with quin-2 inhibits DNA fragmentation. Thus, these ionophores set off apoptosis through a calcium-activatable endonuclease, suggesting that other nonphysiological toxins might also cause apoptosis through their ability to indirectly elevate the cytoplasmic calcium concentration, without the need to invoke specific surface receptors.