Infection of a murine-spleen dendritic cell line by Listeria monocytogenes was found to induce cell death through apoptosis. To characterize the bacterial product(s) involved in induction of apoptosis, dendritic cells were infected with the L. monocytogenes EGD strain and several isogenic mutants deficient in the production of individual listerial virulence factors. The ability to induce cellular apoptosis was retained by all mutants tested, except the prfA and delta hly mutants, both of which are unable to produce listeriolysin. Apoptosis was also induced by purified listeriolysin suggesting that this protein directly induces apoptosis. Purified recombinant listeriolysins rendered either weakly haemolytic by a C-484 to S mutation, or nonhaemolytic by a W-491 to A mutation exhibited little or no capacity to induce apoptosis, indicating that both activities are associated within the same protein region. Treatment with purified listeriolysin or L. monocytogenes infection also triggers apoptosis in explanted bone-marrow dendritic cells. Thus invasion of dendritic cells by L. monocytogenes, which results in cell death, may play an important role in the pathogenesis of listerial infections by impairing immune responses, hindering bacterial clearance and promoting spread of the infection.