Expression of the adenovirus E1A oncogene induces apoptosis which impedes both the transformation of primary rodent cells and productive adenovirus infection of human cells. Coexpression of E1A with the E1B 19,000-molecular-weight protein (19K protein) or the Bcl-2 protein, both of which have antiapoptotic activity, is necessary for efficient transformation. Induction of apoptosis by E1A in rodent cells is mediated by the p53 tumor suppressor gene, and both the E1B 19K protein and the Bcl-2 protein can overcome this p53-dependent apoptosis. The functional similarity between Bcl-2 and the E1B 19K protein suggested that they may act by similar mechanisms and that Bcl-2 may complement the requirement for E1B 19K expression during productive infection. Infection of human HeLa cells with E1B 19K loss-of-function mutant adenovirus produces apoptosis characterized by enhanced cytopathic effects (cyt phenotype) and degradation of host cell chromosomal DNA and viral DNA (deg phenotype). Failure to inhibit apoptosis results in premature host cell death, which impairs virus yield. HeLa cells express extremely low levels of p53 because of expression of human papillomavirus E6 protein. Levels of p53 were substantially increased by E1A expression during adenovirus infection. Therefore, E1A may induce apoptosis by overriding the E6-induced degradation of p53 and promoting p53 accumulation. Stable Bcl-2 overexpression in HeLa cells infected with the E1B 19K- mutant adenovirus blocked the induction of the cyt and deg phenotypes. Expression of Bcl-2 in HeLa cells also conferred resistance to apoptosis mediated by tumor necrosis factor alpha and Fas antigen, which is also an established function of the E1B 19K protein. A comparison of the amino acid sequences of Bcl-2 family members and that of the E1B 19K protein indicated that there was limited amino acid sequence homology between the central conserved domains of E1B 19K and Bcl-2. This domain of the E1B 19K protein is important in transformation and regulation of apoptosis, as determined by mutational analysis. The limited sequence homology and functional equivalency provided further evidence that the Bcl-2 and E1B 19K proteins may possess related mechanisms of action and that the E1B 19K protein may be the adenovirus equivalent of the cellular Bcl-2 protein.