Mitochondrial alterations including permeability transition (PT) constitute critical events of the apoptotic cascade and are under the control of Bcl-2 related gene products. Here we show that induction of PT is sufficient to activate CPP32-like proteases with DEVDase activity and the associated cleavage of the nuclear DEVDase substrate poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase (PARP). Thus, direct intervention on mitochondria using a ligand of the mitochondrial benzodiazepin receptor or a protonophore causes DEVDase activation. In addition, the DEVDase activation triggered by conventional apoptosis inducers (glucocorticoids or topoisomerase inhibitors) is prevented by inhibitors of PT. The protease inhibitor N-benzyloxycabonyl-Val-Ala-Asp-fluoromethylketone (Z-VAD.fmk) completely prevents the activation of DEVDase and PARP cleavage, as well as the manifestation of nuclear apoptosis (chromatin condensation, DNA fragmentation, hypoploidy). In addition, Z-VAD.fmk delays the manifestation of apoptosis-associated changes in cellular redox potentials (hypergeneration of superoxide anion, oxidation of compounds of the inner mitochondrial membrane, depletion of non-oxidized glutathione), as well as the exposure of phosphatidylserine residues in the outer plasma membrane leaflet. Although Z-VAD.fmk retards cytolysis, it is incapable of preventing disruption of the plasma membrane during protracted cell culture (12-24 h), even in conditions in which it completely blocks nuclear apoptosis (chromatin condensation and DNA fragmentation). Electron microscopic analysis confirms that cells treated with PT inducers alone undergo apoptosis, whereas cells kept in identical conditions in the presence of Z-VAD.fmk die from necrosis. These observations are compatible with the hypothesis that PT would be a rate limiting step in both the apoptotic and the necrotic modes of cell death. In contrast, it would be the availability of apoptogenic proteases that would determine the choice between the two death modalities.