The molecular pathway of p53-dependent apoptosis (programmed cell death) is poorly understood. Because p53 binds to the basal transcription-repair complex TFIIH and modulates its DNA helicase activities, we hypothesized that TFIIH DNA helicases XPB and XPD are members of the p53-mediated apoptotic pathway. Whereas transfer of a wild-type p53 expression vector by microinjection or retroviral infection into primary normal human fibroblasts resulted in apoptosis, primary fibroblasts from individuals with xeroderma pigmentosum (XP), who are deficient in DNA repair and have germ-line mutations in the XPB or XPD gene, but not in the XPA or XPC gene, have a deficiency in the apoptotic response. This deficiency can be rescued by transferring the wild-type XPB or XPD gene into the corresponding mutant cells. XP-D lymphocytes also have a decreased apoptotic response to DNA damage by adriamycin, indicating a physiologically relevant deficiency. The XP-B or XP-D mutant cells undergo a normal apoptotic response when microinjected with the Ich-L, and ICE genes. Analyses of p53 mutants and the effects of microinjected anti-p53 antibody, Pab421, indicate that the carboxyl terminus of p53 may be required for apoptosis. Direct microinjection of the p53 carboxy-terminal-derived peptide (amino acid residues 319-393) resulted in apoptosis of primary normal human fibroblasts. These results disclose a novel pathway of p53-induced apoptosis.