During the process of endochondral ossification chondrocytes progress through stages of terminal differentiation culminating in apoptotic death. We have developed a serum-free suspension culture that allows terminal differentiation and facilitates the investigation of factors affecting chondrocyte apoptosis. We have found that chondrocytes not committed to terminal differentiation, i.e., those from the caudal region of chick embryo sterna, a region that remains cartilaginous for some months after the chick hatches, maintained high viability in serum-free suspension culture. A strong dependence of viability on culture density and sensitivity to induction of apoptosis with the protein kinase inhibitor, staurosporine, was consistent with the proposal that these chondrocytes, like nearly all cells, require intercellular communication for survival. Chondrocytes that were committed to terminal differentiation, i.e., those from the cephalic region of chick embryo sterna, a region that is replaced by bone before the chick hatches, expressed the hypertrophic phenotype but maintained their viability in culture for only approximately 6 days. Subsequent cell death was very consistent between cultures and shown to occur by an apoptotic process by analysis of DNA fragmentation and cell morphology. Short-term viability of hypertrophic chondrocytes was independent of culture density and relatively resistant to treatment with staurosporine. Induction of the hypertrophic phenotype in immature chondrocytes committed them to cell death and prevention of expression of the hypertrophic phenotype prevented cell death. We conclude that commitment of chondrocytes to terminal differentiation is associated with a commitment to apoptosis and apoptosis of hypertrophic chondrocytes in growth cartilage does not require initiation by external signals.