The activity of the C. elegans gene ced-9 is required to protect cells that normally survive from undergoing programmed cell death. Here we describe the cloning and molecular characterization of this gene. ced-9 is an element of a polycistronic locus that also contains the gene cyt-1, which encodes a protein similar to cytochrome b560 of complex II of the mitochondrial respiratory chain. ced-9 encodes a 280 amino acid protein showing sequence and structural similarities to the mammalian proto-oncogene bcl-2. Overexpression of bcl-2 can mimic the protective effect of ced-9 on C. elegans cell death and can prevent the ectopic cell deaths that occur in ced-9 loss-of-function mutants. These results suggest that ced-9 and bcl-2 are homologs and that the molecular mechanism of programmed cell death has been conserved from nematodes to mammals.