The potential involvement of ceramide-related signaling processes in the induction of apoptosis by tumor necrosis factor alpha was assessed by multiple biochemical strategies in the human leukemic cell lines HL-60 and U937 and the murine fibrosarcoma cell lines L929/LM and WEHI 164/13. Exposure of these cells to tumor necrosis factor alpha resulted in internucleosomal cleavage of genomic DNA, yielding laddered patterns of oligonucleosomal fragments characteristic of apoptosis when resolved by agarose gel electrophoresis; similar responses were observed after exposure to exogenous sphingomyelinase or synthetic ceramides. Quantitative spectrofluorophotometry demonstrated that these treatments promoted time- and concentration-dependent degradation of DNA, resulting in the formation of and eventual release of small DNA fragments (< or = 3.0 kb). Corresponding damage to bulk DNA was demonstrated by enhanced-fluorescence alkaline unwinding analysis. DNA fragmentation was not induced by phospholipase C or synthetic diglyceride; in fact, the effects of sphingomyelinase and ceramide were substantially reduced by coexposure to these agents, suggesting opposing roles for diglyceride- and ceramide-mediated signals in the regulation of apoptosis. Phospholipase A2 and arachidonic acid failed to promote DNA fragmentation, as did phospholipase D. Characterization of DNA strand breaks by alkaline and neutral elution analyses confirmed that ceramide action was restricted to breakage of mature, double-stranded DNA but not of nascent DNA. The induction of DNA damage was associated with appearance of apoptotic morphology and decreased clonogenicity. These results demonstrate that the ceramide-dependent signaling system selectively induces apoptosis and raise the possibility that ceramide-activated enzymes represent important components in a signaling cascade involved in the regulation of programmed cell death.