The observation that the nematode cell death effector gene product Ced-3 is homologous to human interleukin-1beta-converting enzyme (caspase-1) has led to the discovery of at least nine other human caspases, many of which are implicated as mediators of apoptosis. Significant interest has been given to aspects of the cell biology and substrate specificity of this family of proteases; however, quantitative descriptions of their biochemical characteristics have lagged behind. We describe the influence of a number of environmental parameters, including pH, ionic strength, detergent, and specific ion concentrations, on the activity and stability of four caspases involved in death receptor-mediated apoptosis. Based on these observations, we recommend the following buffer as optimal for investigation of their characteristics in vitro: 20 mM piperazine-N,N'-bis(2-ethanesulfonic acid) (PIPES), 100 mM NaCl, 10 mM dithiothreitol, 1 mM EDTA, 0.1% 3-[(3-cholamidopropyl)dimethylammonio]-2-hydroxy-1-propanesulfonic acid (CHAPS), 10% sucrose, pH 7.2. Caspase activity is not affected by concentrations of Ca2+ below 100 mM, but is abolished by Zn2+ in the submicromolar range, a common characteristic of cysteine proteases. Optimal pH values vary from 6.8 for caspase-8 to 7.4 for caspase-3, and activity of all is relatively stable between 0 and 150 mM NaCl. Consequently, changes in the physiologic pH and ionic strength would not significantly alter the activity of the enzymes, inasmuch as all four caspases are optimally active within the range of these parameters found in the cytosol of living and dying human cells.