Two challenges (intraperitoneal lipopolysaccharide (LPS) administration and cecal ligation and puncture (CLP)) and two strains of mice (LPS-normoresponder (C3H/HeN) and LPS-hyporesponder (C3H/HeJ)) were used to investigate pathways of cell injury. After intraperitoneal administration of LPS, endotoxin was absorbed into the bloodstream (HeN, 10.4 +/- 9.4 x 10(4) EU/mL; HeJ, 14.7 +/- 6.0 x 10(4) EU/mL), but as expected, only C3H/HeN mice produced serum tumor necrosis factor (TNF) (HeN, 2.5 +/- 2.0 x 10(3)pg/mL; HeJ, 87.0 +/- 38.7 pg/mL). Gel electrophoretic analysis of DNA extracted from six organs demonstrated the apoptotic "ladder" only in the thymus and only in the HeN mice. When the mice were challenged with CLP, both HeN and HeJ produced a small amount of serum TNF (HeN, 5.8 +/- 3.5 x 10(2) pg/mL; HeJ, 2.2 +/- 2.5 x 10(2) pg/mL) and both strains had very mild endotoxemia (HeN, 23.4 +/- 3.8 EU/mL; HeJ, 27.9 +/- 10.1 EU/mL). The DNA fragmentation pattern characteristic of apoptosis was observed not only in thymus but also in spleen, lung, and Peyer's patch of gut of both strains. This organ-specific pattern was more pronounced in the thymus of HeN mice; otherwise, the organ-specific patterns were similar for HeN and HeJ mice challenged by CLP but absent in those same organs when those same mice were challenged with LPS. The data suggest the existence not only of an endotoxin-driven activation for thymic apoptosis, but also of an endotoxin-independent, TNF-independent pathway activating widespread apoptosis in the murine CLP model of sepsis.