Although insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (IDDM) results from irreversible loss of beta cells, the mode of cell death responsible for this loss has not previously been categorized. In this study, the multiple low-dose streptozotocin (stz) model (intraperitoneal injection of stz at a concentration of 40 mg/kg body weight per day for five consecutive days) was used to investigate beta-cell death during the development of IDDM in male C57B1/6 mice. Apoptotic cells were evident by light microscopy within the islets of Langerhans of treated animals from day 2 (the day of the second stz injection) until day 17. Immunohistochemical localization of insulin to the dying cells confirmed the beta-cell origin of the apoptosis. Two peaks in the incidence of beta-cell apoptosis occurred: the first at day 5, which corresponded to an increase in blood glucose concentration, and the second at day 11, when lymphocytic infiltration of the islets (insulitis) was maximal. Insulitis did not begin until day 9, by which time treated animals had developed overt diabetes as revealed by blood glucose and pancreatic immunoreactive insulin (IRI) measurements. Beta-cell apoptosis preceded the appearance of T-cells in the islets and continued throughout the period of insulitis. Thus, whether induced by stz or a subsequent immune response, apoptosis is the mode of cell death responsible for beta-cell loss in the multiple low-dose stz model of IDDM.