Apoptosis is a distinct mode of cell death that is responsible for deletion of cells in normal tissues; it also occurs in specific pathologic contexts. Morphologically, it involves rapid condensation and budding of the cell, with the formation of membrane-enclosed apoptotic bodies containing well-preserved organelles, which are phagocytosed and digested by nearby resident cells. There is no associated inflammation. A characteristic biochemical feature of the process is double-strand cleavage of nuclear DNA at the linker regions between nucleosomes leading to the production of oligonucleosomal fragments. In many, although not all of the circumstances in which apoptosis occurs, it is suppressed by inhibitors of messenger RNA and protein synthesis. Apoptosis occurs spontaneously in malignant tumors, often markedly retarding their growth, and it is increased in tumors responding to irradiation, cytotoxic chemotherapy, heating and hormone ablation. However, much of the current interest in the process stems from the discovery that it can be regulated by certain proto-oncogenes and the p53 tumor suppressor gene. Thus, c-myc expression has been shown to be involved in the initiation of apoptosis in some situations, and bcl-2 has emerged as a new type of proto-oncogene that inhibits apoptosis, rather than stimulating mitosis. In p53-negative tumor-derived cell lines transfected with wild-type p53, induction of the gene has, in rare cases, been found to cause extensive apoptosis, instead of growth arrest. Finally, the demonstration that antibodies against a cell-surface protein designated APO-1 or Fas can enhance apoptosis in some human lymphoid cell lines may have therapeutic implications.