Three chemically distinct serine, but not cysteine, protease inhibitors (phenylmethylsulphonyl fluoride, N-tosyl-L-phenylalanylchloromethyl ketone and 3,4-dichloroisocoumarin) prevented, in a dose-dependent manner, the characteristic apoptotic internucleosomal DNA cleavage (DNA ladder) typically observed in thymocytes in response to dexamethasone and teniposide VM-26. This effect was not the result of a direct inhibition of the Ca2+,Mg(2+)-dependent endonuclease, since oligonucleosomal DNA cleavage occurred in the presence of these inhibitors in isolated nuclei. The proteolytic step occurred at a very early stage of apoptosis, and preincubation of thymocytes with the inhibitors before dexamethasone or teniposide VM-26 were added irreversibly suppressed ladder formation. This implied that the cellular effector(s) of these compounds preexisted and were not resynthesized in response to the inducers of apoptosis. Serine protease inhibitors also suppressed apoptotic cell shrinkage and complete nuclear collapse, suggesting that these morphological changes were directly related to internucleosomal fragmentation of DNA. However, the serine protease inhibitors did not prevent high molecular weight DNA cleavage (> 50 kilobases) that preceded the ladder formation and thymocytes still died by apoptosis. This supported the view that internucleosomal DNA cleavage, considered to be the biochemical marker of apoptosis, might in fact be a late and dispensable step and that the newly described high molecular weight DNA cleavage might be a better indicator of apoptosis.