Treatment with VP-16 (1-50 microM) or excess thymidine (5 mM) caused a block of L cells at different steps in their progression through the replicative cycle. The arrest was followed by an asynchronous process of cell death that conformed to criteria for apoptosis. Careful monitoring of this process in the whole cell population by flow cytometry showed a virtual absence of necrosis, an increase in side light scattering, followed by the occurrence of a population with subdiploid DNA fluorescence as well as reduced forward and side light scattering. The development of apoptosis required sufficient time and adequate ion gradients in the cells. By the combined use of flow cytometry and fluorescence microscopy data were obtained suggesting that (i) intracellular free Ca2+ and pH and/or their drug-induced alterations had to be adequately controlled for the apoptotic process to evolve; (ii) mitochondria were compromised earlier than the plasma membrane or lysosomes; and (iii) K+ extrusion possibly played a role in the final loss of cell volume. Interfering with the control of ion gradients and/or their changes in drug-treated cells resulted in cell death by necrosis.