Apoptosis and necrosis represent two different mechanisms by which cells die. The dynamics of cellular lesions in these two processes differ. In particular we demonstrate that plasma membrane damage, occurring as a primary event during necrosis represents, on the contrary, a delayed but massive phenomenon during apoptosis. In consequence there are different kinetics of propidium iodide incorporation by necrotic and apoptotic thymocytes. This represents the basis for the flow cytometric identification of different cellular subsets. Analysis of these subsets after sorting showed that clearly apoptotic cells, which are not able to exclude propidium iodide for long incubation periods, do not show any morphologically detectable membrane damage. The kinetics of propidium iodide incorporation in vivo in isolated rat thymocytes can therefore be used in flow cytometric analysis. This technique can be used instead of DNA staining of ethanol-treated cells or nick translation to recognize apoptotic cells, and distinguish apoptosis from necrosis, without killing the cell.