The sphingomyelin pathway, which is initiated by sphingomyelin hydrolysis to generate the second messenger ceramide, signals apoptosis for tumor necrosis factor alpha, Fas, and ionizing radiation. In the present studies, the anticancer drug daunorubicin also stimulated ceramide elevation and apoptosis in P388 and U937 cells. Cell-permeable analogs of ceramide, but not other lipid second messengers, mimicked daunorubicin in inducing apoptosis. Daunorubicin-stimulated ceramide elevation, however, did not result from sphingomyelin hydrolysis, but rather from de novo synthesis via activation of the enzyme ceramide synthase. An obligatory role for ceramide synthase was defined, since its natural specific inhibitor, fumonisin B1, blocked daunorubicin-induced ceramide elevation and apoptosis. These studies demonstrate that ceramide synthase activity can be regulated in eukaryotes and constitute definitive evidence for a requirement for ceramide elevation in the induction of apoptosis.